HOLLAND, Mich. – The talk heading into the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Championships was primarily about the other three teams and their 30-something win streaks.
Illinois Wesleyan conveniently stayed under the radar. After all, the Titans were 3-4 early on and, as senior guard Olivia Lett admitted, “sitting at 3-4 you’re a little worried about the at-large bid. That starts to cross your mind. You’ve got to pretty much sweep conference then. We were more worried about that than us coming together.”
Oh, they came together. After dispatching 12th-ranked St. Thomas in Friday’s second semifinal 67-53, the No. 16 Titans extended their winning streak to 13 and their record to 27-5. Their only loss since that rocky start was in two overtimes at Wheaton on January 28.
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“I would throw some credit to our schedule,” coach Mia Smith said. “We took some knocks early and those knocks never scared us.”
She stopped and looked at Lett and sophomore forward Shelby Jackson and asked, “Can I say we’re fearless?”
They nodded yes.
“We might be a little fearless,” Smith continued.
And why not? Consider that the majority of these players were part of IWU’s team that lost both in the national semifinals last year and then the game for third place, which happened to be at their place in Bloomington, Ill. And then last June Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer, having surgery and taking treatments but never missing a game.
Once the season started, Jackson was recovering from mono and senior guard Karen Solari was not yet all the way back from knee surgery.
They’re so healthy now that Smith said she was actually able to throw a new defense at her players this week and they responded.
“I believe this game was won on defense,” said the coach whose team held St. Thomas to 29-percent shooting, forced 24 turnovers and, despite a size disadvantage, held a 45-42 rebounding advantage. “We played with every ounce of effort and heart we had in our bodies. We played hard.”
Not that that was anything new for a team that starts five guards.
“The energy is what sets this team apart from all the other teams I’ve ever coached,” Smith said. “I’ve coached a lot of teams that have a lot of physical talent. And they work hard. But to see this team in practice, we suck air in practice because we’re busting ourselves so hard. It’s so encouraging to watch them do that and then to see them reap those rewards is so enjoyable and so meaningful, to them, too.”
Perhaps more to Lett than anyone. She continued her scorching personal postseason run with game-highs of 24 points and 12 rebounds. That gives her 114 in five games with one more to play, against George Fox (32-0) in Saturday’s title game.
She only hit 9 of 23 from the field, “but my team lets me shoot and that’s a great thing that they have that confidence in me,” she said.
“We knew Lett was going to have her points,” St. Thomas coach Ruth Sinn said. “We understood that. She is a great player. She finds multiple ways to score, she can score from the outside, she can take you off the dribble, she can post up.”
Lett is from tiny Pana, Ill., just more than an hour’s drive from Bloomington, where IWU is located. But she started at Southern Illinois in Carbondale, a Division I school where she started as a freshman. But before the conference tournament, she blew out her knee. Then there was a coaching change and, well, it was time to go.
So she transferred to IWU after the first semester of her sophomore year. It was not a seamless transition.
“As a DI player, you have an ego, whether you want to have one or not. You have an ego,” Lett said. “So the adjustment to this type of game was a lot different. It was hard at first and it didn’t help that my knee wasn’t 100 percent. I had a second surgery after my sophomore year and since then it’s a hundred percent better. And my teammates accepted me right away and that helped, since I was going through a tough time and they helped me get through it.”
After last year’s run IWU had to incorporate a handful of sophomores into the mix, including Jackson, who had 11 points and seven rebounds against St. Thomas.
“We knew it was going to be a long process, especially with bringing the younger players up,” Lett said. “And for us seniors, it was really about getting confidence in our underclassmen. It’s unbelievable the things that they come to us for now. We’ve just got a mutual respect for each other I think that really helps out our team.
“Our underclassmen are always wanting to learn, they’re always asking questions. And that’s a great energy for our team, especially as a senior. As a senior,” and she laughed, “you’re getting tired. So to have that energy in practice is great.”
Now they’re a win away from the school’s first national championship.
“I’m so happy for them,” Smith said. “Tomorrow is something they’ll always, always remember. It’s things they’re going to tell their children, things they’re going to tell their grandchildren. I could not be happier for this group.”
They get it.
“It’s a very exciting thing, any time you make it to a national-title game it’s exciting, especially when you’re the underdog,” Lett said. “And that’s kind of what we’ve taken on all year. We didn’t come in ranked as high as we have in the past. I guess we did come in on a nice little run before we got here, but we weren’t picked to make the final four.”
“So it’s a different position than we’re used to and it’s very exciting.”