Hard work lifts Titans to Final Four
By Brian Lester
|Olivia Lett had 24 points, 10
rebounds and five assists in the Elite Eight game against Carthage,
giving her 64 points in her last three NCAA Tournament
Mount Union athletics photo
Mia Smith has been a basketball coach for a long time, including spending the past 14 years at Illinois Wesleyan.
In that time, she said she has never seen a team work harder than the Titans (26-5) have this year, and on that note, it's no surprise that IWU is headed to the Final Four this week at Hope College in Holland, Mich.
Its quest for an NCAA Division III national championship begins at 7 p.m. Friday with a national semifinal showdown against St. Thomas (30-1) at the DeVos Fieldhouse.
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"I am very excited for the players," Smith said. "I've coached basketball for a long time and I've never seen a team work has hard as this group has. They have put in the time since Day One and it's why they are playing in the Final Four this week."
The solid work ethic has a little to do with the fact that the Titans fell short of their national championship dream last season. IWU lost 87-77 to Washington University in a national semifinal and fell 64-58 to Christopher Newport in the consolation game. But the Titans found their way back to the NCAA tourney this season for the seventh time under Smith and have won their past 12 games.
“We got a taste of winning last year, and I think they wanted to experience that again,” Smith said. “They wanted to get back to a Final Four and they put forth the effort to make it happen. I think the fact that we do work hard in practice makes a difference in games. The players just have a refuse-to-lose attitude.”
The Titans only have two players averaging in double figures. Senior guard Olivia Lett has led the way, clicking for 21.7 points per outing. Lett has led the team in scoring 10 times in the last 11 games. She is also pulling down 6.6 rebounds per game. Lett has hit 46 treys.
Junior guard Melissa Gardner is the other player for the Titans scoring in double figures. She is pumping in 13.3 points per game and has drilled 91 three-pointers.
Five other players are averaging at least five points per outing, as IWU is averaging 78.6 points and giving up 63.5.
“I think one of the most important things we’ve done to be successful is that our players have learned to play with Olivia and Olivia has learned to play well with them on the court,” Smith said. “We have created a great team situation and that is one of the reasons you are seeing the scoring averages we have. The big thing is that even though Olivia is our leading scorer, I have confidence in every player shooting the ball.”
While the Titans certainly have a lot of weapons offensively, they are tough on the defensive end of the floor as well. IWU is giving up 63.5 points per outing and has forced 684 turnovers, including 334 off of steals. Lett has racked up 57 steals while senior guard Britt Hasselbring has come up with 50 steals. Sophomore guard Colleen McMahon has tallied 46 steals.
The Titans are holding opponents to 39 percent shooting. Since a 76-74 double overtime loss to Wheaton on Jan. 28, IWU has given up 70 or more points only once.
IWU won the College Conference of Illinois Wisconsin tournament with a 68-67 win over Carthage and beat Carthage again in the Elite Eight in a 77-69 victory. Lett dropped in 24 points in the win.
“We have always been pretty good in our full-court defense but have really taken a big step forward with our half-court defense,” Smith said. “We have done a better job of getting after it and have made it a lot tougher for teams to score on us.”
Beating St. Thomas will be no small task. Smith is well aware of how good the Tommies are as they haven’t lost a game since their season-opening setback to UW-Stevens Point (70-53).
Still, Smith is confident her team will be ready for the challenge.
Defending national champion and unbeaten Amherst or undefeated George Fox await the winner in the national championship game at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday.
“Everything we have done all year has prepared us for this week,” Smith said. “We have players who have been in this situation before and they know what to expect. We are focused and as long as we play our best, we’ll have a chance to be successful.”