On a title march
|Thomas More has won the PAC's automatic bid for
five consecutive seasons now.
Thomas More athletics photo
During a rare down moment recently, Brian Neal came across a YouTube clip commemorating John Wooden's long journey to championship immortality. Before the madness of March beckoned, it offered him an opportunity for self-assessment before continuing his quest to finally turn Thomas More's seasons of near-regular-season perfection into his women's basketball program's One Shining Moment.
“It took him 16 years to win his first national championship,” the seventh-year coach said of the UCLA legend. “I thought, 'Man, 16 years, that's a long time to go.'
“Eventually I do feel we're going to make a run and get over the hump. I like the group we have this year. I'm not much on guarantees, but I like the group we have. I like their mentality.”
Well before Neal and his Saints (28-0) begin their latest run through the Division III bracket with Friday's first-round home date against Piedmont (20-8), they had long since proven themselves as a regular-season powerhouse, breezing through two of their past five pre-NCAA slates unscathed. Their senior class is a remarkable 111-8; their current roster is riding a six-week run atop the D3hoops.com Top 25.
But for all of their efforts, the Saints have never advanced further than their trip to the 2009 Sweet 16.
For Thomas More to leave its recent history in its rearview mirror, it must start with overcoming one of the tournament's more unforgiving four-team pods. Providing the Saints sidestep Piedmont as expected, awaiting as a potential second-round roadblock will be either No. 16 Mount Union (25-3) or No. 24 UW-Whitewater (21-6).
Across their roster, though, there is a unified belief that the Saints will take a different path this postseason. Even Neal, a self-described “trainwreck” prior to past tournaments, emanates the calm of a tournament-seasoned coach.
|Chelsea Tolliver is one of the Saints' co-leading scorers.|
And with good reason. Beyond their prior experience under this month's bright lights, the Saints are blessed with more depth, quickness and size than any of their previous outfits. Ten players average between 10.1 and 24.5 minutes per game, with 6-0 senior center Nicole Dickman and 5-6 sophomore guard Chelsea Tolliver leading a balanced squad with 13.3 points per game apiece.
Furthermore, the Saints have seven players 5-10 or taller led by Dickman (7.4 rebounds per game) and 6-1 sophomore forward Katie Kees (5.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 60 total blocks). Their size and versatility have helped them limit opponents to 50.4 points per game utilizing Neal's aggressive man-to-man scheme.
“We're taller and stronger across the board at every position,” 5-10 senior forward Amy Stultz said. “We've improved so much from the past years at every position. And the experience is definitely there as well.”
“I feel like with our strength and depth, we're capable of going further than the Sweet 16,” Dickman said. “I feel like we have a better team this year. We are all clicking together.”
Thomas More already owns three victories over No. 19 St. Vincent and an early-season triumph over No. 12 Christopher Newport, adding to the Saints belief that they are ready for a big run this March.
“I feel less pressure this year than ever. I don't know if that's me maturing or me being more confident in the process,” he said.
A pair of Liberty League firsts
|Terron Victoria scored a game-high 17 points in
Skidmore's Liberty League semifinal win against RPI.
Skidmore athletics photo by Kevin Colton
No league's postseason tournaments provided more unpredictable than Liberty League, as the Skidmore men and Vassar women defied their seedings to earn their first-ever invitations to their respective NCAA tournaments.
And both coaches think this is the start of something big on their respective campuses.
Before securing the first Division III NCAA Tournament appearance in its 27 seasons of existence, Skidmore (18-9) was best known for playing the longest game in NCAA history, a seven-overtime tilt that produced a 128-123 victory over Southern Vermont on Nov. 23. After toppling No. 2 RPI and No. 1 Hobart, the Thoroughbreds saw their name pop up opposite perennial power and No. 9-ranked Amherst (24-3) in Friday's first round at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
“It's just been spectacular,” first-year coach Joe Burke said. “What an experience for these kids. All around it's been everything we could have hoped for.”
Burke arrived after six years as an assistant coach at the U.S. Naval Academy and infused his roster with a more gritty defensive mindset because, while seven of his players average more than six points per game, “The best teams are teams that can guard in February and March. That's been our thing all year long: let's be the best defensive team we can be.”
Led by the versatility of junior trio of Kyle Clark (6.2 points, 4.4 rebounds), Melvis Langyintuo (team highs of 10.6 ppg and 6.1 rpg) and Terron Victoria (8.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg), the Thoroughbreds limited Hamilton to 52 points in the Liberty League title game that further energized a burgeoning fanbase that began to believe after the seven-overtime thriller garnered national publicity.
Skidmore played four New England Small College Athletic Conference squads, beating Trinity and trailing champion Middlebury by six at halftime before falling 85-72 on Jan. 8, so Burke's bunch will know what to expect Friday night.
“You get to this time of year that everybody's going to be great,” Burke said. “It's a tough matchup and we're excited to play it. We're anxious to get back out there.”
Meanwhile, the Vassar women (16-11) continued to defy expectations in their tournament. Picked to place seventh among the Liberty League's eight teams in the preseason poll, the Brewers secured their first winning season since 2000-01 by claiming the conference's fourth seed.
Despite having just eight healthy players, second-year coach Candice Brown's squad willed itself to victories over top-seeded St. Lawrence and second-seeded William Smith – the latter coming exactly one week after suffering an 84-73 setback on the Herons' homecourt.
“We had to make a decision: We could be OK with just being there or decide what it is we wanted,” said Brown, the Liberty League Coach of the Year. “We decided we wanted to go in and compete and give ourselves a chance to win.”
Junior guard Brittany Parks (20.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.2 apg) earned Liberty League Tournament MVP after being selected league's offensive player of the year, averaging 21.5 points, 7.5 assists and 6.0 rebounds last weekend. Guard Cydni Matsuoka (17.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.0 apg) captured rookie of the year honors and was joined on the league's all-rookie team by forward Hannah Senftleber (13.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg).
Vassar's efforts earned them a road game at No. 9 Kean (22-4) this Friday. While the Brewers enter another postseason game as an underdog, it hardly fazes them after their historic run to this point.
“I anticipate our players will be a little nervous. I anticipate that they will be really excited and compete at highest level we're capable of,” Brown said. “It's going to be a great experience.”
Illinois Wesleyan's walking wounded
Having guided a roster of walking wounded all season, then having to survive a few weeks of must-win games, Ron Rose can finally take a deep breath: He will get to coach Illinois Wesleyan in the NCAA Tournament.
To say the least, this is awfully different last winter, when the Titans were blessed with enough good health and good fortune to reach the Elite 8 last.
"It has been an eventful season," the fifth-year coach said with a chuckle. "A lot of unforseen bumps in the road, but I've been real proud of our guys with how they've hung in there through some of these adversities and we get to play in the NCAA tournament."
This season, Rose and his staff have continually defined and redefined roles due to a rash of injuries. Star senior point guard Travis Rosenkranz suffered a severe concussion Feb. 12 against rival Wheaton (Ill.) and while the coach said his floor general is "getting healthier," he has not been cleared by doctors for Friday's first-round game against No. 22 UW-River Falls (20-7).
Furthermore, first-team All-CCIW senior forward Doug Sexauer (13.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg) has dealt with a nagging ankle injury -- one of several Titans dealing with day-to-day maladies -- and Jordan Zimmer (11.6 ppg) missed the first semester after undergoing foot surgery.
Therefore, Rose developed depth out of necessity. Eleven players have appeared in at least 18 games, going from starting roles to the fringe of the Titans' rotation. Stephen Rudnicki, a junior guard, rode the rotational roller coaster: he started the first six games, then saw 34 minutes over five contests through Jan. 12 before settling in as a reserve.
"I don't think you can understate emotionally the toll that can take on your team," Rose explained. "It really tests the fabric of your team -- it's hard to go from playing to not playing -- and be excited about the role you're being asked to play, which may involve not get minutes."
After falling to Augustana in the CCIW final and finding itself on the NCAA bubble, Illinois Wesleyan is ready to make another run, as healthy as it has been all season.
"I do think this team is deserving and is capable of competing at a very high level," Rose said. "I'm exciting that we get that opportunity. Certainly you could make a case that if we didn't have the injuries, we would not be a bubble team. We're excited for the opportunity, especially for our seniors."