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Women’s basketball advances to Sweet 16, will host Oshkosh on Friday

| Associate Editor

Down one and nearly halfway through the third quarter, the No. 6 Washington University women’s basketball team was battling for tournament survival against No. 24 Wheaton College. But back-to-back buckets from sophomore forward Madeline Homoly ignited a 14-4 run to put the Bears up for good.

The eventual 83-74 Bears’ win cemented the team’s ninth trip to the third round of the NCAA tournament in the past twelve years. The Bears will take on No. 13 University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh on next Friday with a chance at the Elite Eight on the line.

Senior Zoe Vernon passes the ball to a teammate during the Bears’ March 3 game against St. Norbert. The Bears defeated St. Norbert and Wheaton College this past weekend and move on to the next round of the NCAA tournament. Aaron Brezel | Student Life

Senior Zoe Vernon passes the ball to a teammate during the Bears’ March 3 game against St. Norbert. The Bears defeated St. Norbert and Wheaton College this past weekend and move on to the next round of the NCAA tournament.

While Wash. U. led the entire Saturday night game, save for the brief hiccup in the third quarter, Wheaton was never far behind. Until the Bears made their third quarter run, the Thunder never trailed by more than nine points.

“We played a lot of close games; so, it’s not like our first time, it’s not our first rodeo,” head coach Nancy Fahey said. “These are not games of want. Everybody wants to advance. This is a game of understanding that. But it’s going to boil down to the boards. It’s going to boil down to the execution and players making plays.”

Before the Bears were tested by Wheaton though, the team had to overcome its first round matchup against St. Norbert College Friday night. Known for their stout defense, St. Norbert entered the game allowing just 48.8 points per game, good for the ninth-best in Division III. The high-efficiency Bears’ offense would put them to the test, though, entering the game averaging 77.6 points per game.

Trailing by one after the first quarter of play, Wash. U. began to pull away in the second quarter and cruised to half with a 33-27 lead. Senior forward Zoe Vernon made the difference in that second period, reigning over the court with seven points, two boards and a block.

But as they say, when it rains, it pours, and the Bears certainly poured buckets over the Green Knights in the third quarter. Vernon added another seven points, senior Jenn Dynis put in four and sophomore guard Rachael Sondag drilled a corner three to put the Bears up by 16.

Dynis ended up the Bears’ leading scorer in the 73-54 win, with Homoly adding eight rebounds. Those eight were just a part of the 35-27 rebounding advantage the Bears commanded, taking the edge in a physical game.

A day later, the Bears took the court for their hotly contested second round matchup against No.  24 Wheaton College. The Thunder, like the Bears, entered the game a high-scoring machine, averaging 77.3 points per game with two 100-plus point games under their belt. However, Wheaton had just slipped past Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology 57-54 in the first round.

The Thunder’s primary offensive threat came in the form of senior Katie McDaniels, averaging 19.8 points per game with 4.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds. Prior to the tournament’s start, McDaniels was named as finalist for the Jostens Trophy, recognizing the most outstanding Division III basketball players of the year, for the second consecutive year.

The game started quickly in Wash. U.’s favor, with an opening possession three by Vernon leading to a 9-2 run by the Bears to open the game.

“[Vernon] scores of the bounce, she boards, she hits threes,” Fahey said after the game. “I think more importantly is that air of confidence that she gives the team.”

Every time the Bears would go on a run, Wheaton found a way to close the gap. After a three from Sondag opened up a nine-point lead with six minutes to go in the first half, the Thunder responded with an 8-2 run. Wheaton shot well from the field in that first half, netting over a 50 percent shooting percentage.

That air of confidence Fahey spoke of showed on the court, as the Bears managed to hold a three-point lead at the half. It was the Bears’ superior rebounding margin, plus-12 at the break, that kept Wash. U. in the game despite Wheaton’s counter-attacks.

“Wheaton came out on fire. They shot the ball extremely well. I was happy at halftime to be up by three,” Fahey said. “We talked about the boards and that’s what kept us in the game in the first half. And then we just had to tighten down. We made a few adjustments both offensively and defensively that gave us that punch.”

After Wheaton took their first lead of the game with about six minutes left to play in the third, the Bears caught fire. A 14-4 run capped off by Sondag nailing a three put the game out of reach for good, but the Bears weren’t satisfied.

Homoly and Vernon took over from there, combining for 13-straight Bears’ points and pushing the lead to 13. Homoly ended the game with a double-double, 26 points and 11 rebounds, both game-leading stats, while Vernon passed the 500-point mark for her career.

Maintaining for the fourth quarter, the Red and Green held McDaniels to just 14 points and one rebound. Like with the St. Norbert game, boards ended up the difference, with the Bears notching more defensive rebounds (27) than the Thunder had total rebounds (26).

“We have a resilience. I think the UAA and all the tough play that we’ve had this year has really prepared this team very well,” Fahey said. “Good teams don’t stop and that’s why they’re all here.”

The Bears will stay in St. Louis to host No. 13 University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh this upcoming Friday. It won’t be the first time these two teams have met in the tournament, either. In the 2014 tournament, UW-Oshkosh bounced the Bears, with a 72-66 second round victory.

“There’s a little bit of history, so we’re excited to get out there and play Oshkosh for sure,” Vernon said, in anticipation of the matchup. “Our goal the whole season has been to advance in the tournament, so it’s fun to keep going and get the chance to keep playing more.”