Dowling, Ashland ride winning streak into national championship game
Sometimes, talk is not cheap. It can be uplifting.
Ashland and Dowling spoke to the media prior to Friday night's national title game. The theme throughout the 30-minute session was mutual respect.
Ashland is in the national championship game for a second consecutive year. The Eagles are the first team to reach the title game in consecutive seasons since Cal Poly Pomona won back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002. The Eagles are 36-1 and ranked second in the country and are riding a 12-game winning streak.
This is Dowling's first journey to the national championship game and the first time the school has reached the Elite Eight. The Golden Lions are 30-3, have a 15-game winning streak and are ranked 10th.
"They play the game the right way," Dowling head coach Joe Pellicane said of the Eagles. "It's a cliché. To me, this is a celebration. Somebody's going to be crowned national champion. These kids, both sides, it's not going to change who they are, they're winners. I watch a team like this and I love it. I was a basketball player and a basketball fan before I was a basketball coach. I thought I knew it all and now, two years later, I realize I don't know much. But I do know they're a terrific team that plays together and walks on the court in a classy way."
"I have all the respect in the world for how they play the game," said Ashland head coach Sue Ramsey of the Golden Lions. "Pat Summit said it best and she has a few wins under her belt. Offense brings in the crowd, defense wins basketball games and rebounding wins championships. Dowling's defensive rebounding is tremendous. That takes a team to play the way they play. You look at the statistics, that tells part of the story what they hold their opponents to. You watch them as a unit on the floor, that tells the rest of the story. I have all the respect in the world for how they play the game, the quality of people that they are, that's a reflection of the coach."
Dowling is first in the country in scoring defense (47.8 ppg.) and field goal percentage defense (30.8). The Golden Lions are seventh in blocked shots per game (5.6) and ninth in rebound margin (+7.8).
Ashland is fourth in rebound margin (+10.9) and 11th in scoring defense (54.3).
Connie Simmons, a 5-8 senior guard, is one of the keys to that Dowling defense. She averages 5.8 rpg., and 1.3 spg. (41 steals).
"Because we stay together as a team and communication," replied Simmons, when asked why the Golden Lions are so proficient on defense. "That's been one of our key components this season, to talk and stay in each other's ear."
One of the most interesting matchups in this game centers around Ashland senior guard-forward Kari Daugherty and Dowling's 6-3 senior forward Danielle Wilson.
Daugherty is a transfer from Dayton. She is currently tied for first in the nation in double-doubles (24), is second in rebounding (13.8 ppg.) and third in scoring (22.2 ppg.). Daugherty has been named the Division II player of the year for two consecutive seasons. She holds the Division II record for consecutive double-doubles (34). A year ago, she was the national leader in rebounding and double-doubles.
Wilson began her career at Baylor. In three years with the Bears, she scored 1,015 points, grabbed 638 rebounds and blocked 249 shots (second all-time at Baylor). Her career field goal percentage was 51.3. As a junior, she was first team All-Big 12 and a member of the All-Big 12 Defensive Team. Wilson averaged 15.1 ppg., and 9.6 rpg., as a junior.
Wilson grew up 10 to 15 minutes away from Dowling in Bay Shore, N.Y., and returned home to finish her college career. Wilson is third in the country in blocked shots per game (2.97), fifth in double-doubles (20), sixth in field-goal percentage (56.8) and 12th in rebounds per game (11.2). She averages 17.2 ppg. Wilson had 18 points, 10 rebounds, six blocked shots and two steals in Dowling's 76-54 win against Augustana in the semifinals. She is the East Coast Conference player of the year, ECC defensive player of the year and was named the most outstanding player of the Division II East Regional Tournament.
Obviously, both Daugherty and Wilson knew how to make the transition from Division I to Division II. That takes more than talent on the court. It requires knowing how to make the players around them better and how to raise a program. Understanding the entire game and the people in it is also important.
"It's how we work on the court, not trying to get to get caught up and try to do everything yourself," said Daugherty. "It's a total team effort."
Daugherty was a guard at Dayton, but has been asked to play major minutes in the post at Ashland. What makes her unique is that she can do that and handle the ball with ease throughout a game.
Wilson has an impressive set of skills on and off the court, too.
"Obviously, her talent is witnessed by all," said Pellicane of Wilson. "What you don't know is what a great person she is, what a great teammate she is. You never heard once heard her say, 'Hi, I'm Danielle Wilson, former Baylor Bear.' She came back for the right reasons."
Ashland has never won a national championship in what is termed, "a team sport." At AU, that would include men's and women's basketball, baseball and softball, men's and women's soccer, women's volleyball and football. Women's soccer at Ashland has made one trip to the national semifinals and the volleyball team has reached the national quarterfinals one time. The baseball team has reached the College World Series five times. AU's best finish on the diamond is fifth.
"What an incredible opportunity," noted Daugherty. "Some of the girls are saying to play for a national championship once is amazing. To do it twice is unthinkable."
Two Ashland seniors, forward Daiva Gerbec and guard-forward Ashley Dorner, have one more year of college eligibility remaining. Neither will exercise that option and some would be surprised by that, considering how successful the Eagles have been the last two years.
Dorner has been a profile in courage the last two seasons. She has already endured one surgery on her knee and has played at less than 100 percent for long stretches this season. Gerbec missed all of last season due to a leg injury. She is looking forward to a career in medicine and doesn't want to wait any longer to pursue that challenge.
"It's hard, college athletics are hard on the body," said Ramsey. "Both of these young ladies had major surgeries, injuries. I think in Ashley's case we'd have to petition for a sixth year. She gives her all, works extremely hard, but it's probably time to move on. I can't remember exactly when she made that decision, I think it was probably after the season started, in November or December."
"In Daiva's case, she's on a great track, pre-med," Ramsey said. "I'm not sure where that's going to take her, but she has a real heart and a passion and compassion for people and wanting to serve. She'll move on and do great things. I support them 100 percent."
That doesn't mean that the two haven't thought about re-thinking their stance. Gerbec admitted that on Thursday.
"Definitely, just with the excitement of the season, the tournament, everything," said the Gerbec, a Capital One First Team Academic All-America.