WIAC poised for multiple NCAA berths
When three Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference teams qualified for the NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament in 2008, it marked the first time since 2002 the league had received multiple bids.
The WIAC should get at least two teams in the 2009 tournament and could get three in again—UW-Stevens Point, 2008 Final Four participant UW-Whitewater and UW-Eau Claire.
Stevens Point (21-3, 13-2), ranked No. 8 nationally according to D3hoops.com, clinched at least a share of the regular-season title Wednesday by rallying for a 63-61 victory over UW-La Crosse. The Pointers can clinch the outright title and No. 1 seeding for the WIAC tournament with a victory in the regular-season finale Saturday against visiting UW-Platteville.
Whitewater (21-3, 12-3), ranked No. 7 nationally, remained one game off the pace with an 83-59 victory Wednesday over UW-Oshkosh.
Eau Claire (20-4, 11-4), ranked No. 11, got back on the winning track Wednesday with a 60-35 victory at Platteville.
Based on having seen Stevens Point, Whitewater and Eau Claire play, all three are deserving of tournament bids. However, Stevens Point and Whitewater appear to be more capable of making deep tournament runs.
The Pointers, who had to replace two first-team all-WIAC picks and a third player who garnered honorable mention, are 2-1 against Eau Claire and 1-1 against Whitewater this season. They handed Eau Claire its lone home loss of the season and opened league play with an 84-76 victory over Whitewater, the defending regular-season champion and preseason favorite this year.
Despite making a handful of uncharacteristic mistakes down the stretch in a two-point loss at Whitewater last weekend, this Stevens Point team has taken on the steely persona of its coach, Shirley Egner.
In short, the Pointers are tough, aggressive and they play with an edge.
“Trust me,” she said after the loss to Whitewater, “we will learn from those last five minutes.”
Whitewater coach Keri Carollo and her players learned quickly this season that their third-place finish in the 2008 Final Four guaranteed nada.
The Warhawks returned two first-team all-WIAC picks (senior center Tiffany Morton and junior guard Kelsey Hendrickson) but also had to replace two starters who combined to average 15.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
“I’m really proud of how far we’ve come,” said Carollo, whose team suffered back-to-back losses to UW-La Crosse and Eau Claire late last month. “At the start of the year we were just trying to find ourselves.
”It was definitely a road we had to travel to figure out who we were.“
According to Morton, one of the weaknesses was a tendency to switch on the cruise control.
”If we come and play hard for 40 minutes, we’re capable of winning every game we play,“ she said. ”We had a couple of bumps in the road and we weren’t on the same page in a couple of those games. We didn’t come ready to play and it showed by us losing.“
Eau Claire has an impressive 21-point victory over Whitewater on its resume, but the Blugolds are just 5-3 on the road in league games. Two of the losses—by 12 points to Whitewater and by six points to Stevens Point—were understandable.
The six-point loss to UW-River Falls (14-10, 7-8) was stunning and not a good sign for a team looking to prove it can win a big game on the road, though the Blugolds will be a threat in the WIAC tournament.
Stevens Point has proved its toughness on the road. Whitewater appears to be back on track after stumbling twice in a span of four days last month.
The six-team WIAC tournament—the top two teams receive first-round byes—begins Tuesday. The title game is set for Feb. 28 and the NCAA tournament field is to be announced the next day.
The WIAC should receive multiple berths again this season, and no one should be surprised to see one of its members make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.