For the first time in her college career, Lauren Holden is headed to the NCAA Division I basketball tournament.

The Fordham University senior point guard, who graduated from Lower Cape May Regional High School in 2015, will lead the Rams in just the third tournament appearance in team history.

The tournament bracket will be revealed Monday.

Holden can’t wait for the opportunity to compete at such a high level.

“It feels incredible,” Holden said in a telephone conversation this past week. “To end our conference play on such a high note and (for me to) be a captain, it definitely means so much to be able to go play in the NCAA tournament.”

Holden, who finished with 2,476 career points in high school, scored her 1,000th college point in a loss to Dayton in January.

The Rams, coached by Stephanie Gaitley (Ocean City H.S. class of 1978) are 25-8 and won the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament championship against top-seeded Virginia Commonwealth on March 10. Holden played all 40 minutes that game, and her 38.5 minutes-per-game average is among the highest in the country.

Gaitley says keeping Holden on the court is a vital part of the team’s success.

“She’s kind of that ‘iron man’ (on the court),” Gaitley said. “We’re not the same team when she’s not on the court.”

Holden, who will turn 22 Friday, added that preseason workouts have been the key to staying prepared for her such usage.

“I definitely think (preseason conditioning) helps. And we do a lot of competitive things in practice. Everything we do is competitive,” said Holden, who is averaging 9.0 points, 2.5 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game and has made 89.1 percent of her free throws.

Holden and Gaitley have strong links to South Jersey basketball. Holden is the daughter of former Lower Cape May coach Pat Holden (and Anissa) and a niece of current coach Scott Holden. Her grandfather, the late George Holden Sr., had a record of 216-130 as coach of the Caper Tigers. Her brother, Pat Jr., scored 2,103 points in high school and plays for Widener University. Younger sister Lindsay is a freshman at Lower Cape May.

Gaitley starred for Ocean City and then Villanova. She is a member of the university’s Hall of Fame.

Gaitley has been to the NCAA tournament eight times as a coach: twice with Richmond, five times with Saint Joseph’s and once with Fordham (2014). She’s known for her emphasis on defense, and she says Holden’s tenacity on that side of the court helped get her attention.

“She came to our Elite Camp,” Gaitley said. “And what jumped out at me was even though she was one of the top scorers in South Jersey, I just really loved her on-ball defense.”

By the end of that camp, Gaitley offered Holden a spot on the team once she finished high school. Holden gave it some thought, and accepted the offer on the car ride home.

She was only a sophomore.

“It was such a family atmosphere here,” Holden said of her decision to attend the New York City university. “Coach (Gaitley) has always had my best interests at heart and the team’s best interests at heart.”

Holden also added that the proximity to home was another factor in the decision. She will graduate with a degree in communications in May.

In the six years since their meeting, Gaitley says, her family and the Holdens have bonded over their love of basketball.

“(My sons) have gone over and played pickup (games) over at Lower Cape May in the summer,” Gaitley said. “We’ve brought them over to spend time with us, and we’ve gone over there to spend time with them.”

“It’s a lifetime friendship, which I’ve enjoyed,” she added.

Note: The Final Four games will take place at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, on April 5. The national championship will be held two days later at the same venue.

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