Women’s basketball opens up NCAA tournament against St. Norbert
With a last-second victory against the University of Chicago last weekend, the Washington University women’s basketball team clinched the UAA championship, guaranteeing them an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament and their 28th consecutive playoff appearance.
The No. 6 Bears will host the first and second rounds of the postseason at the Wash. U. Field House this weekend, facing off against St. Norbert College Friday evening. If the Bears advance, they will face the winner of No. 24 Wheaton College and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Saturday evening.
The Bears have a relatively clear path out of this weekend, but looking ahead, the next few rounds get much more difficult. Should the Bears advance, they’ll likely face No. 11 DePauw University or No.13 University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, matchups that will certainly test the Bears’ sights on a long postseason run.
Here is a primer of what to expect from this weekend of tournament play.
How did they get here?
Down nine points with just 47 seconds remaining in the UAA championship game last weekend, the Bears looked like they would have to settle for an at-large bid to the tournament. However, after two three pointers from senior Ereka Hunt and an unconventional last-second jumper by junior Natalie Orr, Wash. U. stunned their conference rivals, 77-75.
The Bears had been behind by as many as 13 early in the third quarter but then exploded for 24 points in that quarter thanks to aggressive North-South play from the front court.
Their big win against Chicago capped off an 11-game win streak that came entirely against conference opponents, propelling the Bears to a 12-2 UAA record on the season.
Scouting the opponents
St. Norbert is on an equally torrid streak, having won 18 of their past 19 games. This is in large part due to their balanced scoring, with five players on the roster who average more than six points a game. The Bears will have to watch out for senior guard Regan Carmichael, who leads the squad with 12.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game.
The Green Knights (20-5) earned an automatic bid to the postseason by winning the Midwest Conference Tournament.
When you compare the Bears’ and Green Knights’ statistics, one thing that stands out is the huge difference in points per game. Wash. U. scores an average of 77.6 points each game, a stark contrast to St. Norbert’s 64.9. The Green Knights play a much more defensive game, however, with opponents scoring just 48.8 points, a mark that ranks ninth in the country. Wash. U., by comparison, scores 62.4 points per game.
This Friday is also a clash of two women’s basketball titans. Head coach Connie Tilley has been on the St. Norbert bench for 40 years, and sits at seventh all time on the all-time Division III wins list. Wash. U. head coach Nancy Fahey has been at the helm of the program for 31 years, and is fourth all time in wins.
If the Bears defeat the Green Knights on Friday, as they are expected to, they will likely face Wheaton in the second round. The Thunder hold a 23-4 overall record and won the College Conference of Illinois And Wisconsin championship last weekend to clinch a postseason spot.
The name to know for the Thunder is Katie McDaniels, a senior who leads the team with 19.8 points per game. She’s capable of exploding offensively if she gets hot, as she demonstrated in the CCIW tournament final. Against Illinois Wesleyan University last weekend, McDaniels scored a career-high 32 points to propel the Thunder over the Titans for a 66-62 victory. She also led Wheaton to a critical 76-60 win over Chicago early in the season, with 22 points.
Wash. U. will have to be wary of Wheaton’s offensive bursts, with their 78.0 points per game coming in at 10th in all of Division III, just above the Bears’ 77.6 average. The Thunder also do a good job taking care of the basketball, coughing up just 13.4 turnovers per game. It’s a mark equal to that of Wash. U. and their highly touted ball handlers.
This is Wheaton’s 11th postseason appearance in the team’s history. The Thunder have not fared well against the Bears in the past, going 0-6 against them all-time, but these two squads haven’t faced off against each other since 2002.
This is Rose-Hulman’s first ever tournament appearance, making them much less experienced in these high-pressure situation than the veteran Bears who have played nine postseason games in the last three years.
But Rose-Hulman would enter the game on a hot streak, having won their last 14 straight games. More impressively, their 25-game home winning streak ranks No. 2 nationally, behind only the 62-game streak of defending champion Thomas More College.
The Bears rank above the Fightin’ Engineers in numerous statistical categories. Wash. U.’s potent three-point shooting has helped propel them to key victories, with a 35.0 percent mark, while Rose-Hulman comes in at just 26.6 percent from long range. On average, the Bears dish out 5.4 more assists and three less turnovers than their potential opponent. Although their scoring margins are about the same, with a +15.2 differential for the Bears and + 14.6 differential for Rose-Hulman, the Fightin’ Engineers are a much less offensively oriented team, scoring only 60.3 points per game. Their scoring defense is third in the country, allowing just 45.7 points per game.
Wash. U. also holds the edge in their history against Rose-Hulman with a 3-0 overall record, most recently facing off in the early part of the 2014 season, when the Bears held the Fightin’ Engineers to just 35 points.
X-Factor: Zoe Vernon
The Bears’ offense has been so well-distributed this year that it’s hard to pick one player who will make the difference. Sophomore Madeline Homoly led the team in points and rebounds off the bench during the regular season, while Orr and senior forward Jenn Dynis contribute around 10 points per game as well. This weekend, though, watch out for Zoe Vernon, the Bears’ senior captain and starting forward, who has the potential to swing every game in a winning direction for her team, through both tangible and intangible contributions.
Vernon averages 10.2 points per game, but she’s shown that she plays her most impressive basketball in the Bears’ most important matchups. Back in December during the Wartburg AmericInn Tournament, she led the Bears to a victory over previously unbeaten Wartburg by going off for 17 points in the second half. Vernon is especially potent from behind the three-point arc, with 27 three-pointers on the season, the third-best total on the team. Playing Brandeis two weekends ago, she went 5-for-7 from the three-point line to lead the Bears to a 61-49 victory.
Vernon also has experience playing in high-intensity situations: Back when she played at Division I Winthrop University before transferring to Wash. U., her team made it to the first round of March Madness, which was played at Duke, one of the biggest stages in all of college basketball. Her ability to perform under pressure and her leadership skills will be huge for the Bears if they find themselves in a tight situation at any point during the first two rounds.
If Vernon steps up her play this weekend, as she seems to always do in big games, the Bears should be preparing for the third round of the playoffs this time next week.