SAN ANTONIO — The games that got away from Ashland (33-1) and Shaw (28-6) are the ones that have helped get both teams ready for Friday’s national championship game, the first title-game appearance for both schools.
Ashland dropped its season-opener by 17 points to Minnesota Mankato 63-46. Star players Kari Daughter and Jena Stutzman struggled, shooting 4-of-17 and 4-of-15 from the floor, respectively. There was no cohesion and the Eagles started questioning themselves.
“I remember looking at the [assistant] coaches and saying, ‘Are we ever going to win a game this year?’ ” Ashland head coach Sue Ramsey said.
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“We got pushed around. We didn’t play Ashland basketball,” Stutzman said.
“After the game I held it together until I saw my mom. She gave me a hug and I started just balling. I said what is going on? How could I shoot that bad? I mean 4-of-17 is really bad,” Daugherty said, “She’s like, ‘Kari, you’re going to have a bad game once and a while and you just have to move on to the next one. I knew I had to get better if we were going to do anything this season.”
Daugherty and Ashland have been on fire ever since. The Eagles are on a 33-game winning streak, the longest in their school’s history in any sport, and Daugherty was named GLIAC Player of the Year — another first for Ashland — as she led the conference in scoring, and led Division II in rebounding and double-doubles (26).
The streak has not been a one-woman show. Across the roster, everyone took the loss hard and picked up her game.
“I know every coach says take it one game at a time, and don’t look down the road,” Ramsey said. “I’ve been coaching 33 years. I don’t think there’s a team that has used that motto as much as this team has, and really put it into practice. It’s an amazing thing.”
Amazing is how you could sum up Shaw’s season as well. The Lady Bears were hit with significant injuries from the start. Knee surgeries crippled the team and they limped to the end of 2011 at 4-5.
In the first game of 2012, Shaw dropped a game at New Mexico State 61-53 it felt it should have won. The injured players had finally returned and the Lady Bears believed they could play much better despite the poor record.
“That one left a bad taste in our mouths,” Shaw head coach Jacques Curtis said. “We got to the locker room after the game and said, ‘We’re not going to lose another game.’ ”
He was almost right. The Lady Bears won their next 10 games before their lone loss the rest of the season 68-66 to Johnson C. Smith. Curtis said this was the loss that changed everything.
Mix ups on the floor allowed a J.C. Smith’s Terran Quattlebaum to score 27 points. She was 10 of 15 from the floor and 5 of 9 from 3, against the defensive-minded Lady Bears. Shaw played the Golden Bulls twice more and Quattlebaum tallied a combined nine points.
“We just kept leaving her open and over and over and over again,” Curtis said. “It was just missed assignments. I think that loss really got us focused at that time.
“We’ve really got to follow instructions and do the assignments we’re supposed to have. On any given day, your assignment is going to be different. I think that’s what got us here today, that one loss. People say losing isn’t good, but sometimes, the right loss can be good. I think that was the one that helped us out.”
It helped advance the Lady Bears to the semifinals for a second-consecutive year, where in 2011 they lost to eventual champion Clayton State.
“We want that joy moment, but then again you need that pain,” Curtis said.
“You’ve got to be a student athlete or athlete to understand the pain of losing. Even at this point.
“Everybody’s happy to be here. But at some point tomorrow night, someone will have the pain of losing. You accept it and move on because there is 280, 300 schools out there right now and we’re down to the last two. That’s a heck of a journey for these student athletes to take. I hope both teams play well to show folks what Division II basketball is all about. It’s going to be a heck of a game.”