Whitman Women’s Basketball to Play for National Title
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Add another one to the list: in a season that has been defined thus far by broken records and program firsts, perhaps it is only fitting that the Whitman women’s basketball team is going to end its year playing for the national title.
With an 85-70 victory over the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (26-4) on Friday night, the Missionaries (30-1) advanced to the first national championship game in program history. Whitman will play for the Division III national title Saturday night against Farleigh Dickinson University-Florham.
Up to this point in the NCAA tournament, Whitman had not played a game away from the familiar confines of Sherwood Center in Walla Walla. Not only was the national semi-final played on the road, it was also in front of a pro-Wisconsin-Whitewater crowd in Stevens Point, Wisc., approximately two hours from the Wisconsin-Whitewater campus. Heading into this weekend, the Missionaries faced a legitimate question: could they win on the road in the NCAA tournament, without the raucous support of Whitman students, faculty and community members? The answer now is most assuredly yes.
“We knew that by playing here we were basically playing a home team, a team that is very comfortable coming to Stevens Point and so we knew we had an uphill climb and these guys responded very well,” said head coach Michelle Ferenz in the postgame press-conference interview.
Whitman had about 100 fans in the stands behind the team bench, including professors, alumni from the college and the basketball team and one particularly special fan.
“Hailey Ann Maeda’s dad came [from Hawaii] and she hadn’t seen him for seven months and that really sparked her confidence off the bench,” said senior Meghan White in the postgame press-conference interview. “The support for Whitman, we could see it here all game and it was really nice to have our fans.”
After a back-and-forth affair to start the game Whitman took a 22-20 lead with 7:24 to play in the first half, a lead it would not relinquish. Led by senior Sarah Anderegg and junior Heather Johns offensively while White collected rebound after rebound, the Missionaries slowly extended their lead and never looked back. Whitman led 41-30 at halftime and Wisconsin-Whitewater never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.
White pointed to the 46-26 Whitman advantage in points in the paint as pivotal to the team’s success.
“I feel like we really took it to them, even though they were bigger, and we really finished our shots and rebounded offensively and defensively, and I really feel like that sparked our run,” she said.
Ferenz also noted that the nerves early on were to be expected given the circumstances.
“Whitewater’s a team we obviously don’t play [in conference] so there’s always that first few minutes where you’re trying to figure a few things out about pace and physicality and such,” she said. “I think [what] really sparked the run was the boards. And then Heather [Johns] quit missing shots. She had a few that started to fall as she always seems to.”
Anderegg added that the team’s confidence in each other fueled its momentum.
“I think we were also kind of nervous [at the beginning], it’s kind of a big game,” she said in the press-conference interview. “I was definitely feeling it, I was a little nervous … We’re all really good at motivating each other so once we shook off the initial nerves and picked each other up we gained confidence and made some adjustments to the game and that’s what really propelled our run.”
While Whitman was competing in its first Final Four game, Wisconsin-Whitewater was back for the second time in two years, after falling in the national championship game in 2013 to DePauw University. Whitewater seniors Amy Mandrell (33 points) and Mary Merg (21 points) led the Warhawks, who only shot 33 percent from the field and 27 percent from three-point range.
Although Whitman led for nearly three-quarters of the game, Wisconsin-Whitewater never stopped fighting: at several points during the second half the Warhawks matched the Missionaries, and Johns in particular, three-pointer for three-pointer, lay-up for lay-up, free throw for free throw. But the Warhawks were never able to overcome that seven or eight-point barrier and the Missionaries pulled away in the final minutes.
Anderegg finished with 21 points on 11-14 shooting from the free throw line and added 12 rebounds. Johns overcame a slow start to finish with a career-high 33 points in a team-high 37 minutes. White recorded a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds, 11 of those boards in the first half. Sophomore Hailey Ann Maeda chipped in 10 points on 5-6 shooting from the field with several acrobatic drives to the basket.
After falling in the Elite Eight last year, Whitman is on the verge of its first national title in program history.
“For our team our goal at the beginning of the season and even at the end of last season was [to] make it to the Final Four, get to Wisconsin,” said Johns. “And so winning last weekend was huge and we were like, alright we met our goal and we’re not done yet, we’re still going after it but anything else is icing on the cake. I think we’re just all excited and glad to be here and ready to go battle for the title.”
A win Saturday would also be the first team national title for Whitman varsity athletics in school history since the college began competing in DIII. The cycling team has won multiple national titles at the DII level as a club sport and earlier this week junior Karl Mering won an individual national title at the DIII swimming national championships.
“If there had to be my last game on the court, I can’t think of any other way to end my career than with my family,” said White. “It’s going to be so fun tomorrow and I’m so excited and just so glad to have this opportunity.”
Whitman faces FDU-Florham Saturday March 22 at 5 p.m. Pacific Time in Stevens Point, Wisc. Live streaming and stats are available online at ncaa.com.