|The Bears are No. 1 after beating Hope 65-59 for
the 2010 Division III women's basketball championship.
Photo by Joe Angeles, WUSTL Photo Services
By Gordon Mann
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. -- When Jaimie McFarlin got ready in the Washington U. locker room to play George Fox in the national championship game a year ago, the senior knew it might be her last college basketball game.
It didn’t have to be – she had a medical redshirt from the 2007-08 season that she could use if she wanted. But she had already had a full career.
Two trips to the Division III final four. Two conference championships. Top five finishes for rebounding and blocked shots in school history.
“Before we went to last year’s Final Four, I had sort of decided, ‘If we win the national championship, I don’t know (if I’ll return),” recalls McFarlin. She had been an Academic All-UAA selection twice and was getting ready to graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences with honors. She had celebrated Senior Night with her teammates a couple weeks earlier, a traditional farewell for senior athletes.
But then George Fox defeated Washington U. in the national championship game 60-53 and McFarlin thought about the decision some more. “I got a little time off after we lost to George Fox and I just took a good break from basketball, but I realized I still had a passion for it,” says McFarlin. “I was still missing my teammates, missing the sound of the balls in the gym so I decided, “Yeah, I’m going to go back.”
So McFarlin took classes in the university’s MBA program and returned for a fifth season. Like most other seasons in St. Louis, this one had a lot of victories. The Bears went 23-2 in the regular season and won another UAA title. They advanced through the regional round of the NCAA tournament by beating Maryville (Tenn.) and host Thomas More. They survived a rematch against George Fox in the sectional finals and earned another trip to the Final Four for a rematch of last year’s national semifinal against Amherst.
Unlike last year when Washington U. beat Amherst 65-49, the Lord Jeffs exerted their will early in Friday’s game, scoring the first 10 points and leading 28-18 at the break. Trailing by 12 with nine minutes to play in the second half, the Bears showed the poise and balanced attack that makes them so hard to beat each March. McFarlin completed a three point play to cut the Amherst lead to seven. Zoe Unrue and Claire Schaeperkoetter hit threes in consecutive possessions to pull Washington U. within one. Then Unrue struck again from behind the arc to cap the Bears’ 24-12 run and pull them even at 58.
With the game tied at 64 and less than a minute to play, Bears senior Janice Evans sailed a pass into the back court where Amherst’s Caroline Stedman picked it up. Stedman appeared to have an open layup but Bears guard Alex Hoover raced back to foul her with 22 seconds left. Stedman, a 79 percent free throw shooter entering the game, missed both and regulation ended tied at 64. The Bears scored the first 12 points in overtime and never looked back, winning 86-75.
That gave McFarlin, Unrue, Evans and fellow senior Stacey Niese one last chance to win a national championship. They had come up just short against DePauw in the 2007 title game. They lost to George Fox in 2009. And for McFarlin, unlike 2009, this really was the last chance. “You do realize this really is the last time. There is no doubt in mind.” McFarlin said earlier in the week. “There is no sixth year. There is no seventh year.”
This year the Bears seized control of the championship game against Hope with a 12-2 run in the second half. McFarlin grabbed two rebounds to give her 1,000 in her career, becoming the only Bear to reach that milestone. Then she grabbed 13 more along the way. Unrue shook off some early jitters and used her quickness to create enough space for her smooth mid range jumper. Hoover scored 10 points in the last three minutes, including eight late free throws to ice the victory. Fittingly, it was McFarlin who scored the final points in the Bears’ 65-59 win.
Washington U. secured its fifth national championship, which is more than any other school in Division III women’s basketball. But this one is different from the four consecutive titles won from 1998 through 2001. Those teams featured All Decade Honorees Alia Fischer and Tasha Rodgers. This one didn’t even have an All American. But it had exceptional balance with several players – Unrue, McFarlin, Evans, Hoover – who could get a big basket when the Bears needed one. It had the depth and strength in the front court to make life difficult for opposing forwards. It had the size and athleticism in the backcourt to shut down opposing guards. And it had the steady hand of coach Nancy Fahey who just keeps winning, year after year.
With the Walnut and Bronze in hand and a grin on her face, McFarlin began to think about how she had rewritten the end of her college basketball career. “Even when I was shooting those last free throws, I was like, ‘It’s still not over.’ I think when the confetti started falling – and it was real confetti and not the stuff in my dreams – that was about the time when I realized we really won.”
Some dreams do come true. Sometimes you can rewrite a happy ending.