As the season draws to a close, one team will leave Quant Fieldhouse in Stevens Point, Wis., with the ultimate prize -- their school's first NCAA Division III Women's Basketball title. None of the four remaining schools have hoisted the championship trophy, with three teams making their first appearance in the national semifinals.
"Get your popcorn ready," stated FDU-Florham Head Coach Marc Mitchell, "It's going to be entertaining."
FDU-Florham (31-0), Tufts (30-1), and Whitman College (30-1) are in the midst of their greatest season in their respective school's history while making their first trip to the Division III Women's National Semifinals. UW-Whitewater (26-4) makes its fourth appearance to the big stage, including the runner-up to DePauw last year.
The field is headlined with some of the country's top players and coaches in Division III. Along with Mitchell, Tufts head coach Carla Berube, and Whitman head coach Michelle Ferenz were all named Coach of the Year in their respective regions. While Kyra Dayon (FDU-Florham), Hayley Kanner (Tufts), and Heather Johns (Whitman) each received Regional Player of the Year honors.
The action tips off at 6:00 p.m. on Friday with FDU-Florham's high-powered offense and Tufts tenacious defense taking center stage. Florham is the last unbeaten team in the nation as they have cruised through the NCAA tournament with an average margin of victory just under 30 points, including knocking off No. 8 ranked Montclair State 73-53 in the national quarterfinals.
Despite the lopsided final scores, the Devils have trailed or been tied in each of the last three games at the break. Tied at 28-28, the Devils went on to beat Messiah by 13 in the second round. In the Sweet 16, down by two at halftime the Devils outscored Baldwin-Wallace 44-18 in the second half and then overcame a six-point halftime deficit against Montclair State in a 49-23 routing in the second half.
The Devils are amongst the national leaders in many categories including scoring margin (25.3), turnover margin (9.2), and scoring offense (80.6 ppg). They also hold a wide rebounding margin over their opponents at 10 boards per game. The high-scoring offense can hit from all angles with nine different players leading the team in scoring during a game this season to lead their balanced-attack.
"It's a team game," Dayon continued, " It's so much better when everyone on your team can score. When you have that you become unstoppable."
So far this has rung true as the Devils are the only unbeaten team at 31-0. Tomorrow they face a Tufts team that prides itself on stopping the opposition and have been on a wild journey of their own. In the second round, Liz Moynihan hit a three at the buzzer in overtime to lift the Jumbos over University of New England 57-54. Then last weekend, holding a 61-59 lead over Ithaca a last second shot from the Bombers fell off the rim as the buzzer sounded, lifting Tufts in their first Final Four.
"Putting forth a great effort, resiliency, determination, commitment to the program," stated Berube, "and with a little bit of luck. I think you have to have luck to get here."
Allowing just 48.9 points per game, the Jumbos rank second in the nation in scoring defense. Kanner is among the nation's best with 2.81 blocks per game to go along with her 9.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.
"Defense comes first and foremost," said Moynihan, "when we're down and need energy it all comes from defense."
Friday's nightcap features Whitman College and UW-Whitewater. After winning its first 26 games and the top-ranked team in the nation, Whitman fell in the NWC Championship to Whitworth for their only loss of the season. The Missionaries bounced back with four consecutive wins against ranked teams on their home court in the NCAA tournament. Their run consisted of a pair of double-digit victories last weekend against Christopher Newport 87-70 and previously unbeaten and top ranked Thomas More 76-60.
Heather Johns and Sarah Anderegg are the both ranked nationally in scoring at 19.1 and 16.8 points per game, respectively, and the top two scorers of all players this weekend. The Missionaries can also score from outside as Tiffani Brewer Traver is among the best in the land at 40-percent beyond the arc.
Whitewater tells a tale of a different journey. After falling in the National Championship game a year ago, the Warhawks graduated six seniors and then suffered another blow as returning staring forward Lisa Palmer was sidelined with an injury prior to the start of the season.
After a perfect 16-0 in a tough WIAC conference, the Warhawks were upset in the conference tournament falling to UW-Superior and uncertain of their future.
"Second chances don't come along everyday," Whitewater head coach Keri Carollo told her team after receiving an at large bid, "this group really grabbed onto that. And here we are in the final four."
As the only team with national semifinals experience, the Warhawks also are the only team in the field that has played on the road in the NCAA Tournament. Florham, Whitman, and Tufts hosted Regional and Sectional matches, while the Warhawks played in tough road crowds at St. Thomas and Depauw.
Avenging last year's national championship game loss, the Warhawks ended the season for the defending national champions on their home floor with an 88-71 victory. This snapped Depauw's 36-game home winning streak as they hold a 167-9 in Greencastle.
"We wanted it bad, real bad," noted Mary Merg, "We played well together, got our defense going and it was a good game."
Whitewater will take a short bus ride to a familiar setting in Stevens Point, while the other three schools will be playing away from home the first time all postseason - traveling over 1,000 miles or more. Whitewater is seeking their first title after a third place finish in 2008 and second in 2013.
"We have a much different attitude going into it this year,"?said Carollo, "We're not just happy to be there this year. I think the girls are ready to win this."