Women’s basketball sneaks into tourney, looks to snatch Sweet 16 spot

Rohan Gupta and Jon Lewis | Senior Sports Editors

While the Washington University men’s basketball team sat in an enviable position Monday morning, locked comfortably into an NCAA Tournament slot, the women were perched on the edges of their seats, awaiting an uncertain fate. Though ranked fourth in Division III’s Central region, the Bears were well behind the group’s top three, needing an at-large bid to enter the March bedlam.

Luckily for the Red and Green, this will not be the year a now-29-year run of tourney bids ends. The 18-7 Bears will face Wheaton College in Friday’s First Round for the right to take on either Cornell College or No. 5 Hope College the next night.

It’s been a bumpy campaign for the Bears in the first under new head coach Randi Henderson’s watch. Wash. U. began the year as the No. 10 team in the nation, a mark that quickly faded following a pair of early losses. It’s the first Wash. U. team since 1995-96 to fail to reach a ranking in the single digits.

The Red and Green’s 18-7 record marked their worst season in a decade, and their 9-5 showing in UAA play is something Bears fans haven’t seen in at least 30 years. And Wash. U. dropped three games in the Field House—all to unranked teams—as many as it had lost in 61 home games over the four-plus years prior to 2017.

But even outside the historically atypical relative lack of dominance, the Bears flashed signs of brilliance. In the season’s second weekend, Wash. U. swept ranked opponents No. 25 Illinois Wesleyan University and No. 15 DePauw University on the road. That road tenacity came into play down the stretch, when the Bears competed hard with No. 7 University of Rochester and No. 10 University of Chicago, but ultimately fell short by small margins. Ultimately, the Red and Green’s most impactful display of potential came in the rematch against then-No. 11 Rochester, when the Bears built as much as a 26-point lead against the best defense in the conference.

With an up-and-down regular season behind them, the Bears now have Wheaton ahead. The Thunder posted a 22-5 record in the regular season, and came within a couple of free throws of beating Illinois Wesleyan in the College Conference of Illinois and Wesleyan (CCIW) championship game.

Wheaton score a very modest 72.9 points per game, but they do most of their work on the other end of the floor. The Thunders have held opponents to 54.5 points per game on 32.4 percent shooting. The Bears, however, might be able to find a way past the staunch Thunder defense from behind the three-point arc. Wheaton’s opponents have hit 30.9 percent of their three-pointers this season, and that number is significantly deflated by a few games where their opponents went ice cold from downtown.

Meanwhile, Wash. U.’s three-point shooters have flourished in Henderson’s offensive scheme. The Bears are shooting nearly 20 threes per game, and are making 41.5 percent of them. Senior Natalie Orr, junior Rachael Sondag and junior Stephanie Botkin have all taken at least 50 threes this season, and if any one of them catches fire from downtown it could be good news for the Bears.

Should Wash. U. advance alongside Hope, it’ll be hard to expect anything less than a heated matchup. The Bears and the Flying Dutch have already met three times in the playoffs, beginning with Hope’s victory in the 2006 Sweet 16. Wash. U. got its revenge in the best way possible four years later, when both of the two-loss teams clashed in a high-powered National Championship.

After Wash. U. walked away with the title at Hope’s expense, the squads met again the very next year in the second round in Holland, Mich. This time, Wash. U. entered as a more vulnerable six-loss team taking on Hope and it’s 27-3 mark—but again, the Bears left with the victory.

If history is doomed to repeat itself, that may be a bad omen for the Flying Dutch, who enter the tourney as one of the nation’s best teams at 26-1, while Wash. U. has been far less impressive. And the Bears are back in Holland for the first time since that 2011 run, which also happens to be the last time they advanced to the title game.

Hope is the overwhelming favorite to advance over Cornell, which is making just its second tournament bid. Should they meet the Bears in the next round, it would be the first-ever matchup between the two teams.