|Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com|
By Gordon Mann
When the Division III women’s basketball season concludes in Dallas this weekend, it will do so with something that has never happened since we launched this site in 1999.
The women’s tournament ended with No. 1 Christopher Newport (31-0) playing No. 2 Transylvania (32-0).
It’s not the first time we had two undefeated teams playing for the national championship. That last happened in 2015 when No. 1 Thomas More beat no. 3 George Fox, although Thomas More later vacated that victory.
But Saturday will be the first national championship game between two teams that are undefeated swear ranked first and second in our poll.
These 1-versus-2 matchups are very rare in Division III women’s basketball. There have only been 11 of them leading into Saturday’s game, and just six in the NCAA Tournament. Here’s a look back at those previous matchups, with some help from coaches and players who participated in them.
2015 Sectional Final (Elite 8): No. 1 Thomas More 75, no. 2 St. Thomas (Minn.) 58
This one needs an asterisk and an introduction.
Thomas More is now in NCAA Division II, and St. Thomas made the jump all the way to Division I. Not too long ago, the Saints and Tommies were two of the most dominant teams in Division III.
Thomas More was led by All-Everything swing player Sydney Moss, and the Saints rolled through the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament with a 30-0 record. St. Thomas was also 30-0 after defeating Hope in the Round of 16. That was a costly victory for the Tommies who entered the game without injured starting Center Maggie Weiers and left it with two more starters suffering knee injuries within a couple minutes of each other .
The Elite 8 showdown was played in front of a more-than-capacity crowd at Thomas More’s Connor Convocation Center. Fans packed the stands and stood on any surface that would support them, including the concession stand counter to watch the action as Thomas More turned a three-point halftime deficit into a double-digit win. Moss scored 25 of her 35 points in the second half and the Saints advanced to the national semifinals played at Calvin College the following weekend. As noted above, Thomas More won the national champion but later vacated the title.
2008 Sectional Final (Elite 8): No. 2 Howard Payne 53, No. 1 Hope 49
The top-ranked Flying Dutch entered the NCAA Tournament with a 27-0 record and the tantalizing prospect of playing for a national championship in front of its home crowd. Hope was awarded hosting rights for the 2008 final four and, after winning the national championship two seasons earlier, it looked like the Flying Dutch were poised to play for another at the DeVos Fieldhouse.
After Hope and Howard Payne advanced through the first two rounds, the Yellow Jackets got the nod to host the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 because they had a stronger resume under the selection criteria. This remains the last time a Texas team has hosted a sectional in the NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament.
And it was an epic sectional!
In the first game, Hope topped George Fox, 47-40. Twelve months later, George Fox won the national championship led by current Oregon State head coach Scott Rueck. In the second game, Howard Payne defeated DeSales, 79-64, eliminating what may have been the best Bulldogs team in head coach Fred Richter’s consistently excellent tenure.
The 2008 sectional finals provided the second first Tournament matchup between top-ranked and undefeated teams. Player of the Year Meia Daniels scored 37 of Howard Payne’s 53 points and the Yellow Jackets ground out a four-point win over Hope in front of nearly 3000 fans at the Brownwood Coliseum. One week later, the “Perfect Swarm” went north to Hope College and beat Messiah College for the national championship, giving the ASC its first NCAA Division III national championship in any team sport.
2005 Sectional Final (Elite 8): No. 1 Scranton 49, no. 2 Bowdoin 43
When the 2005 NCAA Tournament started, there were five teams receiving No. 1 votes in the Top 25, and eventual national champion Millikin was ranked sixth. Scranton was 26-1 with its only loss coming in the season opener against Williams. Bowdoin entered the Tournament 24-2 and had just beaten rival Bates for the NESCAC tournament title.
Both teams received first round byes and then beat their first two opponents, setting up the Elite 8 showdown in Northeast Pennsylvania. We’ll let two former Lady Royals take it from here.
Taryn Mellody Liuzzo: “Playing against Bowdoin in 2005 was one of my favorite games as a Lady Royal. Bowdoin was a great team that we respected very much. We lost to them in the Elite 8 in 2004, so we were determined to make it to the Final Four my sophomore year. The Scranton community really packed the Long Center to support us that night and you could feel the energy in the gym. It was a tight game the whole way and our team played with such confidence in each other. I remember being up by one late in the game when I made a three in the corner. I think that’s when we really knew we were on our way to the Final Four. The fans rushed the court after the game and I still cherish the pictures I have of me hugging my family to celebrate the win. Those are the moments that made all of our hard work and sacrifice worth it.”
Kelly (Lewandowski) Baskow: “We were able to host that weekend and it was (St. Patrick’s) Parade Day, a big event in Scranton. That win was very special to us for two reasons. First, it sent us to the Final Four, the first time any of us on the team had been there. Second, Bowdoin had ended our season the year before in the Elite Eight at their place.”
While the Polar Bears fell short in this one, that team is the only one that has played in two 1-versus-2 games in the same season. Bowdoin topped Southern Maine 63-55 in the opening month of the 2004-05 campaign. And they played in three 1-versus-2 games in the span of a year because…
2004 Sectional Semifinal (Sweet 16): No. 1 Bowdoin 59, no. 2 Southern Maine 55
Back in the day, the NCAA Tournament bracket often had very local matchups, regardless of the teams’ resumes. Bowdoin and Southern Maine are 30 miles from each other and were paired against each other in their second game of the Tournament, despite it being a rematch from earlier in the season. Bowdoin won that first matchup 59-52 and every other game that season – the Polar Bears were 28-0 and the unanimous pick for No. 1 in the country. Southern Maine’s lone loss was that game against Bowdoin.
In the rematch, Southern Maine shot 52 percent in the first half and took a 29-26 lead into the locker room. But Lora Trenkle led the Polar Bears to victory with 22 points on 7-for-14 shooting, including four 3-pointers, in 38 minutes. Justine Pouravelis added a double-double for Bowdoin, who defeated Scranton the next night, and then beat UW-Stevens Point in the national semifinals, before falling to Wilmington in the title game.
2003 Sectional Final (Elite 8): No. 1 UW-Eau Claire 74, No. 2 Hope 56
Home court is definitely an advantage in the NCAA Tournament, and the host team has won every 1-versus-2 matchup, often in front of huge, boisterous crowds. UW-Eau Claire head coach Tonja Englund explains:
“We sold out Zorn arena on the UW-Eau Claire campus to a standing-room only 2500 fans and we had fans tent out overnight in front of the arena to make sure they could get a ticket. It was a great NCAA women’s basketball atmosphere…The score was tied at 32 at half-time. With the scored tied at 38, UWEC went on an incredible 24-7 run with the backing of our amazing fans to open the game up and win by 18. All-American Kristi Channing scored 23 points in the game and eight points during that run . Our fans still talk about that game to this day…..two extremely talented and disciplined teams, two coaches who are still coaching their teams/programs to NCAA tournaments and one of the best games in DIII women’s basketball history.”
UW-Eau Claire lost in overtime to Eastern Connecticut in the national semifinals the following weekend, and then beat Rochester in the third place game in double-overtime.
2000 Sectional Semifinals (Sweet 16): No. 1 Washington U. 81, UW-Eau Claire 63
Our first 1-versus-2 matchup took place during the most dominant run in Division III women’s basketball history. Under head coach Nancy Fahey, Washington U. won four consecutive national championships from 1998 through 2001. The 2000 WashU squad was a juggernaut, winning every game by double digits. The Bears entered this matchup on a 66-game winning streak. UW-Eau Claire was also undefeated and coming off a 75-38 dismantling of Millikin in the second round. Coach Fahey recalls:
“The anticipation of a 1 vs 2 is as exciting today as it was in 2000. [This game] was a battle against a well-coached and talented regional opponent Eau Claire. I had known [Blugolds head coach] Lisa Stone since college, so it was a special game in many ways. You knew it was going to be a battle from the tip-off.”
WashU held UW-Eau Claire to 34 percent shooting (23 for 67), well below its season average of 42 percent. The Bears finished that Tournament run with wins over Baldwin Wallace (86-71), Scranton (64-30) and Southern Maine (79-33).