Wash U's eyes still on another conference title
For the defending champions, there's a big test on the horizon.
The Wash U men, national champs in both 2008 and '09, appear to be in good shape on their quest for a three-peat in Salem. So far, all is well, the Bears are No. 3 in the nation, they're 18-2, and they're 8-1 in the University Athletic Association.
They've won it all before. Twice. For some teams, that might be a cause to get complacent -- for Wash U, that hasn't been a problem.
Washington University athletics photo
"It could be," coach Mark Edwards said. "But it really hasn't been. And I think that's a testament to the players we have. And perhaps that's why we've won these championships -- because we're able to compartmentalize, enjoy the game, and enjoy the seasons we've been having. And at the same time, there's a lot of hard work that goes into this, and it's not a given from year to year that anything will happen."
With their strong record in the UAA, the Bears are on the verge of locking up first place in the league and booking their return trip to the NCAA Tournament. But they've got a roadblock up ahead first. On Friday, Edwards' crew takes a flight northeast to take on conference rival Brandeis, the only UAA squad to have beaten them already this season. The Bears are two games on the Judges with five to play -- they're in good shape, but this thing's not over. And the Judges aren't backing down from the challenge of facing the national champions.
"We have a great deal of respect for them, and we've had some really good games with them the last few years," Brandeis coach Brian Meehan said. "We really enjoy playing with those guys, and I think they really enjoy playing with us. It's always a competitive game, and it's always a clean, well played game."
"If there's ever a situation where a team goes into a game intimidated at all, it's usually because of the unknown. Maybe it's because you've gotten deep into the tournament and you're matched up with a team you haven't seen before, so you're not sure what to expect. But I think when you're playing a team like Wash U, they've had a lot of success, but you see them all the time and you know what to expect with them."
They were sure ready last time. On Jan. 15, the Judges traveled to St. Louis for their first meeting with the defending champs, and they fought it out down to the wire. They were outshot, outrebounded and for part of the game outplayed -- but they found a way to get the job done. They forced 21 turnovers out of the host Bears and forced overtime at WU Fieldhouse -- and when a buzzer-beating three from Bears captain Aaron Thompson came up short, the Judges pulled away with a 58-55 win. Still, Meehan was far from satisfied.
"I don't think either team played their best," Meehan said. "It was a grind-it-out type of game, and it was really a situation where nobody on either team really got going. Nobody really played all that well, and shooting wasn't that accurate. But both teams know each other very well, and they both played extremely hard, so that's the type of game it was."
"When you're playing a team within your conference," Edwards added, "you're so familiar with each other that it's really just a matter of whether you can stop what they do and what their strengths are. And we didn't do a very good job of that the first time we played them. We need to be more aware of their strengths offensively, and we need to defend against them better."
Since that one loss, though, the Bears have been on fire. They've rattled off seven wins in a row, all against UAA teams and all in fairly impressive fashion. With wins over NYU, Case Western Reserve, Carnegie Mellon, Rochester and Emory in the past month, Wash U has established its place atop the conference standings. Now they've just got to stay there. The UAA is the only conference in Division III basketball that does not have a conference tournament to award its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"We have five games left in the season, and my mindset is that during these five games, we need to establish ourselves in the conference and win the conference in order to get into the NCAA Tournament," Edwards said. "That's our goal. And it was our goal last year, and it was our goal the year before that, and the year before that, that we had a strong enough showing to get into the tournament."
They have gotten to Salem three years in a row, but Edwards isn't taking anything for granted. After nearly 30 years manning the Wash U bench, Edwards has been around the block, and he's seen everything. Most things twice. He's too smart to expect anything to come easy.
"All it takes is one bad bounce and you're out," he said. "And we've had several situations along the way where, you know... if someone makes this shot or misses that shot, it goes the other way, and you're out. You create these situations for yourself, though, and you put yourself in position to win these games. I'm not trying to be apologetic about it. But the reality of the situation is that you have to take these challenges head-on and respect the challenges in front of you."
Both teams have all the respect in the world for each other. They know each other too well not to. And they know what to expect Friday night when they meet again.
"The game's going to come down to who defends the best and who rebounds the best," Meehan said. "I think that's going to be the tell-tale sign. And the way we've done it this year, it could be anybody who steps up for us. And we could really use more than one guy stepping up."
Against the national champs, Meehan will certainly take whatever he can get. But he's not afraid -- his guys have done this before.
ALSO UNBEATEN: You might not have noticed this, but the mighty Amherst Lord Jeffs aren't the only undefeated team remaining in women's basketball. Where's the love for Christopher Newport?
|A look at each of the unbeaten
Division III teams. (Kean's loss is to
Division I Rutgers.) SOS includes regional games only, though
Sunday, Feb. 7.
|Amherst||22-0||.617||Feb. 6 at Tufts (19-3)|
|Kean||21-1||.536||Jan. 9 vs. Wm. Paterson (21-1)|
|Farmingdale State||19-0||.490||Jan. 16 vs. Mount St. Mary (17-4)|
|Chris. Newport||21-0||.483||Dec. 30 vs. Rand-Macon (15-5)|
The Captains have been dominating the USA South Athletic Conference since the beginning of time, but it's never garnered them much national attention. Now that they're 21-0, though, they're hard to ignore, led by junior guard Chelsie Schweers, who is averaging 24.3 points per game and shooting 48.7 percent from three-point range.
"It's probably been that we're an unknown out there for the most part," Captains coach Carolyn Hunter said this week to The Free Lance-Star, in Fredericksburg, Va. "I think we're gaining that respect. We've popped up on people's radar lately. They're saying, 'Hey, Christopher Newport. Who are they?' I didn't expect us to be where we are so quickly. I thought we were a year away."
But now, the focus on this year. As long as they keep winning, they'll keep on climbing -- and at the moment, they're No. 15 in the national poll. After beating Averett 72-54 on Wednesday night, they're now one step closer to finishing an undefeated season that no one at CNU will ever forget.
But at the moment, they've still got four games to go. Stay tuned. Farmingdale State is also unbeaten in women's basketball.
ON THE RUN: Yeah, they did it again.
The Eastern Mennonite men once again knocked off a national No. 1, making twice this month that they've dethroned the nation's top team. First it was Randolph-Macon, whom they defeated soundly at home on Jan. 13, winning 90-67; this week, it was national heavyweight Guilford. The Royals traveled south of the border on Wednesday night and absolutely destroyed the Quakers in their building, 90-63.
"Obviously we had a chance to be pretty good and have a special year," coach Kirby Dean told the local ABC affiliate on Wednesday night. "But to think that we would beat two No. 1's by almost 30 points, that's almost surreal."
The Royals are now 17-3 overall, and 10-2 in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. The Quakers now have two ODAC losses of their own, and Virginia Wesleyan leads the pack by a half-game now at 11-2. With two losses each, these three national powers will fight down to the wire for the top seed in their conference tournament.
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