Phoenix Women Primed for Postseason
It's hard not to root for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay women's basketball team once the NCAA tournament rolls around. Despite finishing the regular season with just one blemish -- a 70-58 loss at home to Detroit on Feb. 9 -- and a secure spot in the top 25 polls all season, the Phoenix will be underdogs once again in the Big Dance.
The Phoenix -- ranked No. 10 in both the AP Top 25 and ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll -- just doesn't get as much respect nationwide as it should. Period. That's because Green Bay plays in a mid-major conference, the Horizon League, and the competition isn't deemed as fierce night in and night out as teams playing in conferences such as the Big East and Big 12.
Green Bay enters this week's Horizon League tournament as the top seed, winning its first 20 games of the season and finishing 17-1 in league play. It's the 14th straight year the Phoenix has taken home the conference title, the longest streak in the nation. If the Phoenix collects three wins this week to capture the Horizon League crown, it will improve to an impressive 30-1.
How will the NCAA selection committee reward the Phoenix's great season? Probably with a No. 5 seed, Phoenix coach Matt Bollant told me last week.
Would the fifth-year coach be happy with that seed?
"I don't know if happy is the right word," said Bollant, who was recognized as Horizon League Coach of the Year for the second straight season. "But that's probably realistic."
That one slip up during the regular season could have been costly. However, it could be more beneficial than anything else.
"Being undefeated, there's some weight that comes with that and the loss probably took a little pressure off us," Bollant said. "You never want to lose, but at the same time it's better to have a loss than zero going into the postseason."
"We say you don't necessarily need to lose to learn from it," said Green Bay senior forward Julie Wojta, who was named the Horizon League Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. "After every win, we still take things from it and ways to get better. The Detroit game, we obviously didn't play our best. That's going to happen when we don't come out ready to go."
Phoenix guard Adrian Ritchie, who earned second-team all-Horizon League, said the loss gave she and her teammates motivation to not lose again.
"We remember that feeling and it's still inside of us," Ritchie said. "We hate to lose; we're not used to it. I think that's why this program's been so successful -- just that a culture has developed here that losing just isn't a part of us."
Losing isn't something the Phoenix players are used to. Over the past two years, Green Bay is an amazing 61-3. The Phoenix had its most successful season last year in the program's 39-year history. The squad won the regular season Horizon League title and also the league tournament. The Phoenix earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and beat Arkansas-Little Rock 59-55 in the opening round. Their next opponent was No. 4-seeded Michigan State, and Green Bay scored the minor upset with a 65-56 victory. In the Sweet 16, Green Bay ran into a roadblock in Brittney Griner and No. 1 seed Baylor -- the top-rated team this season. The Phoenix players held their own against the nation's best shot blocker, but Baylor ended Green Bay's phenomenal run, 86-76.
"It was pretty fun making that run," Bollant said. "That's obviously the goal, to get back and make a run. A lot of it depends on matchups, but we want to be playing our best basketball and want to keep trying to get better."
Advancing to the Sweet 16 was a great experience for the players and a real eye-opener.
"To see those big teams, it's not going to be a surprise any more," Ritchie said. "We feel like we belong and throughout this whole season, being ranked a little earlier, it is just a number, but to us it's still recognition. It boosts our confidence and we know we belong in that tournament."
Wojta added: "It showed that we can stay with anyone and we take a lot of pride in the game we play and it's a little bit different from a lot of other teams. We're not always the most athletic, the tallest, the biggest, the strongest, but we're going to fight you the whole game."
The deep run last year in the NCAA tournament could play a major factor in how well the Phoenix does over the course of the next few weeks.
"A lot of people underestimate what experience really does for a team," Ritchie said. "You don't have to waste those first five or 10 minutes of your first (NCAA tournament) game with jitters."
Wojta said the Phoenix players have some unfinished business after bowing out in the Sweet 16 in 2011.
"As a competitor, you always want to get one step further and I think that there's no limit for this team," said Wojta, whose team opens Horizon League tournament play against Valparaiso Wednesday night. "I think we all have one goal on our mind and that's to get as far as we can. If we play for a full 40 minutes, our hardest and our basketball and that's not good enough, that's something we can live with."
In case you missed it
As I wrote in my column last week, the Notre Dame boys' hockey team was ready to win a state championship. After falling in the state semifinals the previous two years, the Tritons weren't going to be denied this season.
The No. 1-rated team in the state cruised to the title game by thumping No. 2 Superior 5-1 in the quarterfinals and downing Verona 6-3 in the semis. For the championship, Notre Dame and Wausau West played an epic game for the ages. Tied at 2 after regulation, Notre Dame's Mason Appleton scored 3 minutes, 49 seconds into the second overtime to give the Tritons their first title.
Notre Dame finished the year 27-3 and University of Wisconsin recruit Tim Davison's decision to return to high school for his senior year definitely was a wise choice.
Columnist Greg Bates is a freelance writer who recently moved to Green Bay. He isn't unfamiliar with the town, however; he's covered a number of Packers games over the years for media outlets such as WJFW Newswatch 12 in Rhinelander and the Shawano Leader. Greg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.