DII Women's Basketball Notebook: Wild weekend concludes with Elite Eight surprises
It was an action packed weekend in the Women’s Basketball Championship bracket. Four No. 1 seeds were shown the door, as a mere four continue on to this coming weekend. Last season’s National Champion and National Runner-Up have both been bumped from their opportunities to return to glory.
That’s why there is nothing greater than basketball in March.
Francis Marion returns to Elite Eight for first time in 18 years
First year head coach Jeri Porter knew she had talent on her team when she took over in May of last year. She also knew it was a very young team, one comprised of just two seniors and seven total freshman.
“Any time you come into a new program the expectation initially is really just to take inventory of what you have,” Porter explained. “You make sure you are going to get the most out of the kids that are on the roster. It was obvious from the beginning that this was a group that was very coachable, very open to change, very receptive to everything that we wanted to do.”
Porter’s Patriots came out on fire this season, sweeping through the Peach Belt Conference/Conference Carolinas Challenge. They would then take down UNC Greensboro — a DI program — and run through their out of conference schedule undefeated.
“Anybody who would say that we didn’t surprise ourselves a little bit early on would probably be lying to you," Coach Porter said with a laugh. “We knew where the program had been, but we knew that we should be better this year.
“I don’t think that anybody expected going into conference play undefeated, but with that came confidence. Confidence in ourselves, but confidence in what we were doing. We never had the problem of having the kids to “buy in.” I can’t tell you how major it is to not have to sell that factor, these kids bought in from day one.”
The PBC was as difficult as it gets this season. Five teams were selected by the NCAA committee to represent the conference in the NCAA tournament. While finishing 21-8 on the season and earning the No. 7 seed in the Southeast Region may have seemed like a moral victory, Porter and her Patriots weren’t ready to end their season there.
Their regional bracket was full of surprises. PBC foe Augusta would do the unthinkable. The No. 8 seed would strike one of the first major upsets of the tournament, handing Limestone — a team who finished the season as the No. 2 team behind an undefeated record — a 79-70 loss. Next up in the Cinderella category was Francis Marion.
Their opponent was a familiar foe in Lander. In a nail biter that saw Lander chip its way back right till the final buzzer, the Patriots rose triumphant 62-61. The Patriots had avenged two losses to Lander earlier this season and were moving on to the regional semi-finals against Columbus State.
“The biggest difference for us was that we had to defend them as a team,” Porter said of the Lander victory. “We play a lot of pressure defense, but I think we realized after the first game that Lander is not a team that we were going to be able to play that way. Their guard play is just too good. Our goal was to make them play above the free throw line and not get inside the paint.”
They achieved their goal. They also brought national attention to sophomore Briana Burgins, who closed out the Southeast Regional Championship run with consecutive double-doubles en route to Most Outstanding Player honors.
“I was so excited for her to win that award,” Porter said. “She has possibly been our most valuable player all season. She does so many things that fly below the radar. As she as added some offense to that defense that she has brought all season long… I was just really excited that the people that were voting saw how valuable she is to us.”
Now FMU eagerly awaits their next game, their first Elite Eight appearance since 1998. They will have the daunting task of meeting Alaska-Anchorage, who finished the season in the nation’s top 10 behind a 31-2 record.
“We won three games this week that I’m not sure we would have won a month ago,” Porter said. “I don’t say that because we are hot or because we are streaking, I just think that we grew up a lot in the last week of our season. I’m seeing a lot of maturity in our kids and understanding possession basketball.
“To be able to be the standard and move forward into the Elite Eight from such a good league and such a good region I’m hoping allows us to have the confidence moving forward and sets the tone for the type of program that we want to be and the level that we want to compete on.”
GVSU is still dancing
Francis Marion isn’t the only No. 7 seed to find themselves in the Elite Eight this season. Grand Valley State won the Midwest Region championship this weekend behind two of the tournament’s more exciting games.
Like the Patriots, GVSU was led into the postseason by a rookie head coach. Mike Williams, however, was no stranger to tournament play. He was an assistant with GVSU when they won the national title in 2006 before taking over as head coach of Davenport in the NAIA. He would go an unbelievable 130-11 in his tenure, making Final Fours and championship appearances seem common place.
“I learned a great deal under coach Dawn Plitzuwiet when I was here,” Williams credited his mentor. “Some of those things we have used this year.
"I knew we had a good group that had a good previous year. They had been well coached and wanted to be successful. I just didn’t want to mess that up. Right now I think we are excited but a little tired. After a couple of days off they will begin to look forward to their next challenge like they always do!"
The Lakers had a strong season, finishing 22-9 and falling just short of the GLIAC Championship losing to a very formidable Ashland team. GVSU's resume was still strong enough to merit them an at-large bid, but their draw was not favorable. They were pitted against Lewis, a team that many had considered a tournament favorite and arguably the best team in the nation.
In stunning fashion, with just ticks left on the clock, junior Janae Langs hit the decisive jumper to send the Lakers onto the second round, defeating Lewis 72-70. It was the second time that Lewis — a team that had three losses all season — fell to GVSU.
“We called a time out and were able to advance the ball to have court,” William recalled. “[Associate Head] Coach [Phil] Sayers called a play to get Janae going to her left towards the basket with Bailey in the strong side corner and Piper coming behind and Janae got deep enough to take the pull up and hit it.
“This team has stayed the course all year no matter what adversity has been dealt to them and that’s why they are finding some success.”
Next up was a familiar opponent in Saginaw Valley, a team GVSU defeated in the GLIAC tournament. Again they would rise victorious and face Drury — the No. 10 team in the nation —in the Midwest Regional Finals.
It would take over time, but behind another thrilling victory, the Lakers have themselves back in the Elite Eight.
“It was another game where the players stayed the course,” Williams said. “They were down 10 to start the game and didn’t panic. When Drury tied the game, they still felt in control.
“To hold a team like Drury to 60 points in an overtime game showed their fight. Getting to the Elite Eight shows the process that started a few years back by Coach Burgess and Coach Sayers and now these players are reaping the benefits. It speaks to the character of the players in the program and also the type of athletic program that Grand Valley has.”
Top teams advance
In a weekend full of upsets that saw three No. 1 seeds fall by the second round, some of the nation’s top programs did find themselves in the Elite Eight.
Lubbock Christian University continued their remarkable year of firsts. In their first postseason eligible season as a transitional DII program, LCU won their first Lone Star Conference title and can now add their first South Central Regional title to their resume. The 32-0 Lady Chaps face off against No. 4 seeded South Regional champs, Florida Southern this weekend.
Pittsburg State is arguably the hottest team in the country not named LCU. They finished the season with 15 straight wins until running into Emporia State in the MIAA finals. ESU would defeat the Gorillas en route to their fourth straight MIAA tournament title and the No. 1 seed in the Central Region.
PSU would avenge that loss, defeating ESU in the regional finals and are now 18-1 over their past 19 games. It was a 78-74 thriller that saw sophomore Mikaela Burgess hit the decisive free throws with just seven seconds left sealed the deal. They now face GVSU in the Elite Eight.