Perhaps the hardest road to the 2016 DII Women’s Basketball Championships was traveled by the Ursuline Arrows. The journey to their program’s first NCAA postseason tournament bid actually started three seasons ago.
That was when Shannon Sword took over as the Arrows’ head coach. She had come to Ursuline from Ashland University, where she was an assistant coach during their run to the NCAA finals in 2012.
The summer after her first season, tragedy struck Ursuline’s campus. A tornado wiped out their gymnasium and the rebuilding process would take the better part of the next two seasons.
“We played games at nearby colleges, but we practiced at a church everyday, high schools some,” head coach Shannon Sword said. “We never really got to practice where we played our games.
“It was tough for our girls, they didn’t have a sense of home. We were picking them up in a 15 passenger vans and had to change on the floor or in a little bathroom. We lost some players throughout that process, and it was tough to recruit because the gym was standing there with a hole in it. I can’t imagine any situation that could be tougher than what we went through those few years.”
Entering this season, they finally had that home as the Jane and Lee Seidman Gymnasium opened its doors. With only one senior remaining on the roster, Sword knew it would be a good run, but her Arrows have exceeded expectations.
“I thought that we would have the best team they had ever had at Ursuline,” Sword said. “I didn’t envision us conference champions, then conference tournament champions and now going to the NCAAs.”
That’s exactly what they are doing. The Arrows finished the season with a program best 25-3 record and after sweeping the regular season and Great Midwest Athletic Conference titles, they find themselves with their first ever NCAA tournament bid.
The Arrows did it behind an extremely balanced attack. Five players averaged more than 12 points a game. They were also a collection of sharp shooters, as their tallest two players — Camryn Hill and G-MAC Player of the Year Laney Lewis — were also their best three-point weapons.
Now awaiting the Arrows in the first round on their home court is a team that Sword is all too familiar with: the Ashland Eagles.
“They’re just excited about it,” Sword said. “They just aren’t ever scared or intimated by anything. I don’t expect anything different when we go out on the floor against Ashland. We respect them a ton, and they are one of the best programs in the nation, so we are looking forward to taking the floor with a team like that.”
It is a homecoming for Sword. AU’s first year head coach Robyn Fralick sat alongside Sword as assistant coaches during her tenure and the Eagles assistant coach Kari Pickens — arguably the best player in Eagles’ history — was their star player. Now they will be on opposite sides of the court.
“It’s special,” Sword said. “Ashland will always hold a special place in my heart. Working for Sue Ramsey was the best thing that could have happened to me in my coaching career and life. She’s a life long friend and mentor, same thing with Robyn and Kari.”
Should Ursuline find a way to advance against the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, the road doesn’t get any easier. Nationally ranked teams are found up and down the bracket, with tournament regulars like Drury, Quincy, Lewis and Bellarmine waiting in the wings.
The Arrows aren’t getting ahead of themselves however. Sword is just grateful of her time with the current squad and eagerly await that March 11 tipoff against Ashland.
“We weren’t expecting this so soon,” Sword said. “We are blessed by having a great group of young women that are selfless and love basketball. They are as competitive as any group I have ever seen. I wouldn’t trade them for anything, and I’m glad that they’re the team we are taking to the tournament. I know that they will be competitive and represent the GMAC well.”
Angelo State’s double-overtime thriller has them back in the tournament
ASU was coming off of a nine-win campaign in a conference that has been typically run by the West Texas A&M Lady Buffs. Coach Kevin Baker came in looking to change that.
Baker — who had five years of Lone Star Conference experience as an assistant coach at West Texas A&M before becoming the head coach at Texas-Tyler — returned to the LSC with a relatively young team. A mere two seniors — starter Brea Mitchell and key reserve Diamilises Rivera — adorned the Belles roster.
Every head coach has the dreams to hold up the National Championship trophy at the end of the season. It is the utmost goal of the team. However, being in his first year at the program and having a roster full of so much youth, Baker’s goal was for this team to grow into the ability he knew they possessed.
“Anytime you take over a new head coaching job, the goal first and foremost is just to be competitive,” Baker said. “We gathered a collection of kids that we recruited and we kind of crossed out fingers that it would work out. We had talent, but we really didn’t know each other, it took us some time to grow and develop that chemistry to play at a higher level.
Angelo State would in fact grow together as a team as the season rolled on and really came alive in the LSC Tournament. They would sweep through the three games, defeating the Lady Buffs in the championship game. It was the third loss they handed Baker’s former team this season.
A&M has built up a program that is considered a DII Women’s Basketball powerhouse. All three of the bouts against ASU this season were as exciting as a heavyweight title fight. A total of five overtimes and a mere nine-point combined margin of victory separated the two teams on the season.
“The first time we played them here, it was a really close game that came down to the wire. The second time we played them was the three-overtime thriller that was really high scoring. This last time going into double-overtime, I felt like watching their body language and composure that playing those close games with them seemed to help us the third time. You can tell by their demeanor that they had been there before and done that before.”
Now ASU is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2007-08 campaign. Along the way, Baker achieved several personal accolades, including the most wins by a first year coach (22) in program’s history, as well as the first rookie head coach to lead the Belles to the tournament in his debut campaign.
ASU now prepares for their first round game as a four seed in the South Central region against Colorado Mines. Should they advance they would likely have to face off against the No. 1 team in the country, the undefeated Lubbock Christian Lady Chaps.
“I think it’s really neat that three of the best teams in our region are really close to each other,” Baker said. “That speaks a lot to how good Texas women’s basketball really is. If I was recruiting a kid when I was at WT and LCU was recruiting a kid, we were going to get that kid, that’s the way it was. I’m not sure that’s the way it is anymore. Coach Gomez has built quite the powerhouse in Lubbock. WT is always going to be a powerhouse. I just hope we get mentioned in that same equation now.”
Baker has his young Belles on the precipice of a tough battle ahead in this year’s NCAA tournament. However, with such a young squad, Baker knows that ASU’s future is equally as promising as their present. He is simply hoping his team is enjoying the moment.
“It is an unbelievable feeling,” Baker said. “I’m the only one right now that really understands what we are doing. Our team is accomplishing something that I don’t know that they are really comprehending. Maybe five years down the road they will say, “We took a team that only won 9 games and went to the NCAA tournament.’ I’m looking forward to next year, they’ll have been through the fire. But it has been exhilarating to turn this program around to say the least.”