Shepherd women to plow new ground in NCAA tournament
In sports, just like in life, the best predictor of the future is what has happened in the past.
The Shepherd women’s basketball team had never won a conference tournament. Last week in the Mountain East Conference event in Charleston, the Rams came in as one of the league’s tri-champions and seeded No. 2.
Shepherd was one of four teams receiving a first-round bye into the quarterfinals. In those quarterfinals, the Rams beat Glenville, 100-91, as center Liz Myers returned from an ankle injury. But then point guard Cara Mason had a foot injury and could play only 10 minutes.
In the tournament semifinals, it was Notre Dame stopping the Rams, 75-65, to gain a spot in the finals alongside West Liberty.
Shepherd had a 21-9 overall record, which had included a 17-5 conference regular-season record.
The past had been a keen indicator of what the future would bring.
But then all of that got scrambled when the NCAA Division II selection committee in Indianapolis selected the Rams to play in this week’s Atlantic Region tournament to be hosted by top-seeded California (Pennsylvania).
Shepherd had never been selected to play in any national NAIA or NCAA Division II tournament. History took a back seat to the 2014-15 Rams.
The Rams were given the No. 7 seed and have a quarterfinal game against No. 2 seed Indiana (Pennsylvania).
In selecting the Rams to the eight-team field, the committee must have given some consideration to Shepherd’s strength of schedule. During the early days of the season, Shepherd faced Indiana and California on the road. Neither game was close with Indiana beating the Rams, 85-52, and California taking a 91-57 decision on its home court.
The other teams in the field are Bloomsburg (24-4), West Chester (24-5), West Liberty (23-8), Gannon (21-7) and Virginia State (19-9).
Shepherd senior center Gabby Flinchum, who missed the season’s first 10 games, was selected to the Mountain East all-tournament team with her 48 points in the two games the Rams had in Charleston.
To compete with Indiana — or any of the teams in the Atlantic Region tournament — Shepherd will need Myers and Mason back at full strength this week.
After returning from a leg injury, Flinchum played in 20 games, never starting until Myers got hurt very late in the regular season. She led Shepherd in scoring average with 12.9 points a game and was second on the team in rebounds with 6.5 per game.
Rachel Johnson scored 12.4 points a game with Mason scoring at a 11.3 points per game clip and having a team-leading 60 steals, while reserve guard Morgan Arden finished her freshman year with a 10.4 scoring average.
Myers led the team with 6.9 rebounds a game and scored 8.7 points an outing, while Briana Vaden (7.3 points a game) and Alex Weakland (7.1 points a game) rounded out the top seven players in Coach Jenna Eckleberry’s rotation.
Eckleberry was chosen as the conference’s Coach of the Year, leading the resurgent Rams in her first year. Shepherd won four games last year and Eckleberry improved that by 17 games this season.
West Liberty, which shared the regular-season championship with Shepherd and Charleston, won the Mountain East Tournament championship, beating Notre Dame in the finals.
The NCAA Division II national tournament is divided into eight regions that each have eight teams vying to reach the Elite Eight.
The tournament now has 64 teams when before it had only 48 teams with six teams assigned to each of eight regions.
Shepherd did something no other women’s basketball team in school history was able to accomplish.
Playing in the school’s first-ever national tournament after suffering through a four-win season the year before also couldn’t have been predicted by history. Making some noise in the Atlantic Region would cap a “history-making” season for the Rams.