IWU had the fight in them to win it all
By Pat Coleman
|Illinois Wesleyan celebrated
its hard-fought title game win.
Illinois Wesleyan athletics photo
HOLLAND, Mich. -- George Fox led by nine early and led by six late, but the final five minutes of the game was all Illinois Wesleyan as the Titans finished the game on a 16-1 run to win the national championship game 57-48.
But even though the ride seemed eerily similar to last year’s meeting, in which the Titans finished on a 31-13 run to beat George Fox by one in the Elite Eight, that game never entered coach Mia Smith’s mind as her team was mounting its comeback.
“We’re a different team than we were last year,” Smith said of her Titans (28-5). “Last year’s team I thought had more finesse and was longer. This year’s team bites harder, they fight. And that’s what I have seen all year long in practice.”
They fought when they fell down 9-0 five and a half minutes into the game. They fought when George Fox (33-1) cut a six-point halftime deficit to one. And they fought one last time when George Fox went on a 13-0 run to take a six-point lead with five minutes left.
It was the last time the Titans would need to fight in a season that came on the heels of a fourth-place finish in 2011, the graduation of three starters and the news that Smith was being treated for breast cancer. The fight ended in Illinois Wesleyan’s first national championship in women’s basketball.
“I talk to (former men’s basketball coach Dennie) Bridges, our athletic director, every day about our basketball program. About halfway through the year I went into his office and I said, ‘how good do you think we can be?’ His comment was ‘With that much fight, you’re going to be pretty good.’ ”
It turned out they were.
“We were focused on our goal for this year,” said Titans senior Olivia Lett, the D3hoops.com player of the year. “Last year was nice, to make it to the Final Four, to get a taste of this. I think it drove us this year.”
Despite the disappointing way the 2010-11 season ended, Lett said she knew early on that this Titans team could make this kind of run: “I’d say it happened in practice, from Day One. We came into practice and we were all over the place. It was just a new energy. That’s a lot to do with our underclassmen, they bring that fresh energy and they really wanted to learn.”
For Smith, perhaps it came a little later. The Titans struggled out of the gate, starting off 3-4. But all four losses were to teams that ended up in the NCAA Tournament, as were two of those wins. And it was game six, an 80-77 loss at the University of Chicago, that had her convinced.
“I thought Chicago was absolutely the best team around,” Smith said, “and we played them to a three-point game without two of our normal players (including Karen Solari). And I thought as long as we could get those people back into the game that we would eventually be pretty good and that we could get here.
“And I don’t think anybody else felt that. We dropped in and out of the rankings like you couldn’t believe.”
The Titans lost to UW-Stevens Point a week later, but won 25 of their last 26 to take home Walnut and Bronze for the first time.
On Saturday, they trailed early, then caught a bit of a break when George Fox center Hannah Munger went down with a knee injury with 12:40 to go in the first half.
The Bruins initially looked strong after Munger’s injury, extending its four-point lead out to nine on two occasions, including a 21-12 advantage with 7:55 to go in the first half. But the Bruins scored just one point after that, as Illinois Wesleyan went on a 16-1 run to end the first half. George Fox missed two of three free throws in that stretch and Keisha Gordon overshot two wide-open layups.
George Fox got back into the game, and Gordon redeemed herself with nine points in a 13-0 run that gave the Bruins the six-point lead, but that only set up the final heroics. Lett hit a pair of jump shots and added a free throw to cut the lead down to two points and Solari hit a pair of free throws with 2:20 left to tie the game before Melissa Gardner hit a long three-pointer to give Illinois Wesleyan the lead for the final time. Gardner had hit just one of her first five three-pointers.
“I didn’t feel like I was contributing enough to my teammates,” Gardner said. “In a game like this, that is so important. To let a group of girls like this down, that I play with, just isn’t right. They always give me the utmost confidence on nights I’m not shooting well – ‘shoot the ball, shoot the ball Mel, it’ll go in.’ At that point it was late in the game, I was wide open and I knew I had to shoot it. With the confidence from my coaches and teammates, that’s all I needed.”
From there it was Lett with the ball in her hands at the foul line. She hit six free throws in the final 40 seconds to wrap up the win. But perhaps that was just wrapping up the inevitable. As Smith put it, “There was never a moment in that ballgame where I felt that we wouldn’t be a national champion when the buzzer went off.”