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The Lady Mountaineers at the 2008 NAIA-II Tournament

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The Lady Mountaineers at the 2008 NAIA-II Tournament
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What does an athletic victory for a college signify when the majority of the players are hirelings in no way identified with the real life of the school?

…The Berea Citizen (May 7, 1903)

THE LADY MOUNTAINEERS AT THE 2008 NAIA-II TOURNAMENT

The 2007-08 Lady Mountaineers of Berea College have earned the school’s third consecutive bid to the NAIA-II national women’s basketball tournament. They earned their bid by winning the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (KIAC) tournament, defeating Midway College 121-101 in the tournament final on March 1.

Berea’s record is 20-11. They have won at least 20 games in each of the last 5 seasons, after no previous 20-win seasons in the history of the program.

Berea’s best-known players are a pair of guards, junior Candy Walls and freshman Ashley Jade Howard. Both were All-Conference (KIAC) selections. Freshman forward Katie Bailey has a broken shinbone and will not play in Sioux City.

Although sophomore forward Calloray Howard and freshman guard Ashley Jade Howard share the same hometown, they are not related.

Berea’s style of play is characterized by frequent substitutions, a fast pace, pressure defense, and 3-point shooting. Because Coach Bunky Harkleroad wants all of his 13 players to play significant minutes, Berea substitutes frequently. No Lady Mountaineer averages more than 21 minutes per game. In evaluating the performance of Berea players, per-40-minute averages are more meaningful than per-game averages.

Berea tops the NAIA-II scoring list, averaging 95 points per game. Berea has led the NAIA-II in scoring in each of the last 5 seasons. These Berea teams have set many national scoring records.

Berea averages 89 shots per game, more than half of them from 3-point range.

Berea’s 116-127 loss at Union College on December 29, 2007, set a new NAIA-II record for most points, both teams (243). This broke the previous record Berea had shared with Midway College since January 11, 2007 (Berea 120, Midway 111).

Berea grants no athletic scholarships. Every athlete is a walk-on.

Athletes, like all Berea students, are obligated to work at college jobs.

A high school athlete may be admitted to Berea College only if she meets the same admissions criteria (academic promise and financial need) as every other student. An applicant must demonstrate both of these criteria. Furthermore, Berea chooses to admit most of its students from a specifically defined geographical area, the counties that comprise the region of Southern Appalachia.

At Berea College, sports don’t top the priority list. Students accepted by Berea pay no tuition, but all of them must work a minimum of 10 hours a week at college jobs to help defray the costs of their education. No exceptions are made for athletes, who play sports in whatever time is left after they’ve fulfilled their academic and labor obligations. Berea grants no athletic scholarships; however, 36 students have been named All-American athletes at Berea. Although every athlete at Berea is a walk-on, Berea’s teams hold their own by attracting students who are uniquely committed.

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COACHING STAFF

Four-time Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year Bunky Harkleroad is completing his eighth season as head coach of the Berea College women’s basketball program with an overall record of 152-79. Since Coach Harkleroad introduced what is now Berea’s signature style in 2003-04, the Lady Mountaineers have set many national scoring records. More importantly, they have won at least 20 games in each of the last 5 seasons and as KIAC champions have represented the conference at three consecutive NAIA-II national tournaments.

“At Berea we have attempted to become the most exciting basketball program around,” he says. “Our goals are to include as many student athletes as possible, to make the experience fun for our student athletes, and to be competitive on the national NAIA level. We want to develop outstanding camaraderie and team chemistry while winning games and entertaining our fans.”

“We want to showcase an exciting team that excels at fast-paced, high-scoring basketball. We play a clean style but an aggressive one. We want to attack relentlessly all the time, both on offense and defense.”

When Coach Harkleroad is not on the court, he is a Special Education teacher for the Berea Independent School System, where he has been employed for the last ten years. His wife Shan and their three children, Tory (13), Tahni (12), and Ty (9), reside in Berea. Tahni is currently the Lady Mounties’ top recruit for the class of 2013-2014.

Former Lady Mountaineer forward Summer Smith is completing her fourth season as assistant coach. Coach Smith helps to develop the skills of both the post and the perimeter players while assisting with practice, conditioning, game management, scouting, and recruiting. Additionally, she orchestrates Berea’s complex substitution patterns. Coach Smith says, “Whatever style you use, the most important thing is to master fundamentals. A team that can only run plays, if unschooled fundamentally, will fall apart if given a little freedom. That’s not what we want to happen at Berea.

Coach Harkleroad adds, “Summer has a solid understanding of both the mental and the physical aspects of the game of basketball, and she understands the Berea system inside and out. She knows what it takes to win and knows how to communicate. She has been a big key to our success.”

Crystal Davis, former Lady Mountaineer point guard and the program’s all-time leader in assists, returns to Berea after a year as assistant coach at Wilmington College. Coach Harkleroad says, “When Crystal was running the team as a senior, we had our best season ever. She has lived the end result of what we want, and we’re happy she’s come back to be part of things again.” Coach Davis adds, “At Berea I learned that you have to work hard to get what you want. Nothing worthwhile in basketball or in life is going to be easy, but hard work pays off.”

Tom Harkleroad officiated NCAA and NAIA women’s basketball for 32 years, including 7 NAIA national tournaments. He served as supervisor of officials in both the KIAC and Mid-South conferences before retiring from officiating to dedicate his energies to the Lady Mountaineers. He drives the team bus, keeps the statistics, assists at practice, and handles many of the details of recruiting. He is also Berea College’s golf coach

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WOMEN’S BASKETBALL THE BEREA WAY

In the last five seasons Berea has earned a reputation as a team that manages to score a lot of points without a lot of high-percentage sharpshooters. While they’ve led the NAIA-II in scoring in each of those seasons, their approach has evolved in significant ways.

In 2003 Berea coach Bunky Harkleroad installed a version of the high-powered “System” that coach Dave Arsenault developed for his men’s basketball teams at Grinnell College. The System is characterized by a fast tempo, a turnover-forcing pressure defense, and a quick-shooting offense that exploits the 3-point shot. Teams that employ it substitute frequently.

“We still do those things,” says Harkleroad. “But injuries and personnel issues have obliged us to be flexible, and that flexibility has made us a better team. We still press when it’s working for us, but we don’t press exclusively, and we’re ready with multiple defenses. Offensively we’re looking to push the ball at every opportunity, and we still want to shoot a lot of 3s. However, what dictates our commitment to shooting 3s and to uptempo basketball is our commitment to the offensive glass. If we’re going to the offensive glass, we can play more people and shoot more 3s. If not, we’ll make adjustments.”

The Lady Mountaineers want to take more shots than their opponent and maximize that differential by taking a lot of 3-pointers. Rebounding, especially on the offensive end, is critically important when so many shots are missed.

Berea begins each game with four goals: to take 100 shots, attempt 45 3-pointers, rebound 30% of their missed shots, and force 30 turnovers. But in some situations these numerical goals become unrealistic, and the coaching staff asks the team to shift gears. A different look on offense or defense is always possible. The overriding goal, always, is to win the game.

This year Harkleroad has 13 Lady Mountaineers on his active roster. Each one of them plays significant minutes, if you define “significant” minutes as those that are played when the outcome of the game is in doubt. No Lady Mountaineer averages more than 21 minutes per game. Berea substitutes early and often, sometimes sending in five new players at a time. While some players play more minutes than others, Coach Harkleroad expects every player who is good enough to make his team to contribute to a winning effort in game situations.

A made 3-pointer is the most exciting play in basketball, and it is still Berea’s weapon of choice although Harkleroad has just a few money-in-the-bank scorers. Naturally he wants those players to get the ball as often as possible, but he asks all his players to defend and rebound, and any of them may shoot if she has an open look. You can expect all the players on Berea’s bench to see action in the early going, and if they play hard, Berea is difficult to beat. When one of the substitutes hits a trey, the whole team seems to run faster and guard more tenaciously. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, and that’s the way it did work in the 2008 KIAC tournament when Berea defeated higher-seeded teams in the semifinal and final games with heart, hustle, and teamwork.

Whatever system a team uses, basketball is basketball. If you play effective defense, if your shots fall, and if you rebound the ball, you will win!

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2007-08 SEASON RECAP

Freshmen don’t sit at Berea College, and that attracts the type of athlete who wants to see action immediately. If she makes the team she’s going to play, and when she plays she is expected to contribute. But the transition from high school to college basketball, while never easy, can be more difficult at Berea, whose unorthodox style takes some getting used to. How quickly the newcomers catch on will determine, to a great extent, the course of a team’s season.

The pendulum swung in a wide arc for Berea in 2007-08. Consistency was elusive. At times the team dominated some strong opposition, while at other times their play was lackluster or worse. As the dust was settling after a furiously contested KIAC tournament final, Berea coach Bunky Harkleroad observed, “It’s been an interesting year, but that just makes me more proud of these players. They’ve hung in there and shown a lot of toughness. They’ve learned that you can take nothing for granted, that you can’t just show up and expect to beat your opponent.”

With just one senior and two juniors, Berea was a young team that played like a young team. But according to Harkleroad, “The dangerous thing about us is that we’re a young team that believes we can do anything.”

For much of the season a step forward was followed by a step back. Berea struggled to put two good games together. Harkleroad says, “We scheduled some powerful teams so we would know what good competition is. We learned very tough lessons. We had some disappointing times, but those times made us better. Looking at our best games and our worst games, our players began to realize what works and what doesn’t. Being slow on traps doesn’t work. Weak passes, no commitment to offensive rebounding, and poor decision making on offense don’t work. We now know that if we make good crisp passes, share the ball, and are determined to outwork our opponent on the defensive end, we’re going to be in the game and we’re going to have a good time playing the game.”

In the final weeks of the season Berea resolved some lingering personnel issues, while players who had been injured or sick rounded back into form. “We achieved continuity at last,” says Harkleroad. “We’ve played the same people consistent minutes the last couple of weeks, and that’s made a difference.”

Seeded #3 in their conference tournament, the Lady Mountaineers had to face the 2 and 1 seeds in the semifinal and final games. In both contests all 13 of Berea’s players played important roles in pressure-packed situations. In Berea’s final showdown with regular-season KIAC champion Midway College, the 8 players who did not start contributed an astonishing 86 points to Berea’s 121-101 victory.

Berea prevailed, according to Harkleroad, “because everybody played hard. Everybody tried to make the right decisions. When we made mistakes, we were able to take a deep breath and redirect our efforts. Our energy level was fantastic.”

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TOURNAMENT DIARY: MONDAY, MARCH 10

For the second year in a row it was decided that the team would travel the 900+ miles to Sioux City in the Berea College bus. Bus travel is considerably less expensive than what it would cost to fly to Omaha and rent a couple of vans, and it helps the players keep up with their studies. They can take their laptops on the bus and spend large blocs of time working unimpeded. With the weekends factored in as travel days, the players don’t actually miss any more class time than they would if they flew. As we all know, air travel today is hassle-full and time-inefficient.

The team departed late Sunday morning following a practice session and a brief but stirring devotional service conducted by campus minister Edwin Broadhead. Ed’s inspirational message was greatly appreciated by a group of students who seem as physically, mentally, and spiritually equipped to “represent BC” as any athletes Berea has sent to a national competition. However this team might have struggled at times during the regular season, it is now tournament-tested, experienced, and focused on winning. Team leaders have asked the coaches to conduct more strenuous practice sessions, the better to prepare them for what shapes up to be the greatest challenge a Berea women’s basketball team has ever faced.

Ranked #2 in the nation, Morningside College has won 30 of its 33 games. Its average result is an 86-62 victory. The Mustangs are not a team that rides the shirttails of one or two dominant players. No one averages as many as 13 points per game, but all of them contribute points from every spot on the floor. If this is not enough, Morningside will also boast a hometown advantage. Their campus is just a few miles from the Tyson Events Center, where the tournament games will be contested. Sioux City fans will be out in force, and they won’t be cheering for the Lady Mountaineers.

“Morningside is arguably the best team in the country,” says Berea coach Bunky Harkleroad. “Watching their film and looking at scouting reports, you don’t see a lot of holes. They’re a guard-oriented team like we are, but the difference between their guards and ours is about 3 or 4 inches at each perimeter spot. They’re long, they’re skilled, and they’re very aggressive on the perimeter. They play a system where they shoot a lot of 3-point baskets and play multiple fullcourt pressure defenses. They’re going to try to turn us over a lot, as we are them.”

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TOURNAMENT DIARY: TUESDAY, MARCH 11

“That was FUN!” exclaimed sophomore Annbruce Madden as the Lady Mountaineers soared out of the Tyson Events Center after participating in the annual Special Olympics Clinic organized by the Diocese of Sioux City. This activity is entirely voluntary, and the majority of the 32 teams invited to the NAIA-II Women’s Basketball Tournament apparently prefer to devote their time to extra practice sessions or chalk talks. Berea, however, has always elected to pitch in. Two sessions are held, and Berea took part in the second session along with Eastern Oregon University, Rio Grande University, Union College, Daemen College, and tomorrow night’s foe Morningside College. The Lady Mountaineers did their utmost to give the Special Olympians a special experience, and they coaxed a lot of smiles when the basketballs began to fly. As we watched from the sidelines Bunky said, “We need to keep our heads on a swivel!”

The Mountaineers of Eastern Oregon University enter the tournament soon after losing their three best players to injury. They’ll do their best to compete with the #2-seeded Wolves of Cardinal Strich University, but they’re likely to be devoured. As we conversed with EOU’s coach the point was raised that each of the 32 tournament teams could beat at least one other team in the field. But the lower seeds, of course, are never matched against one another. They simply serve as catnip mice for the lions and tigers. Culling the weak is, of course, the reason tournaments are seeded. But it’s almost a shame that the lower seeds couldn’t meet informally on one of the practice courts and see what happens. Those games would almost certainly be more entertaining than many of the first round mismatches. The Lady Bengals of University of Maine at Fort Kent might be skinned alive by #1 College of the Ozarks, but they would give Berea or Eastern Oregon a ferocious battle, and I for one would pay to see it.

I’d be very surprised if Morningside has bothered to investigate Berea’s defensive philosophy and intends to make any adjustments at all. They will try to score points the way they always do. It will be up to Berea to prove they can run with the Mustangs.

Exotic Berea from far-off Kentucky was the subject of a two-minute segment that formed part of the 10:00 newscast on KCAU-TV (ABC) in Sioux City. When you challenge mighty Morningside the denizens of Sioux City take notice, especially if you dare to shoot the 3 even more often than the Mustangs do. Senior Stephanie Corry, interviewed on camera, did her best to warn fans what to expect when these two high-scoring whirlwinds meet.

Berea fans might have noticed an unfamiliar face traveling with the team this last month. She’s Tabitha Lockard, newly enrolled at Berea after a semester at Northern Kentucky University. Tabitha is a graduate of Lloyd Memorial High School in Erlanger who decided she wanted to play college basketball and was attracted to the program at Berea. She has been practicing with the team and has fit right in. Bunky will be counting on her in 2008-09 and hopefully beyond.

The team has just returned from the Banquet of Champions, another special event that makes this tournament so meaningful for all the teams that worked so hard to qualify. Dressed in their best, beautifully coifed and made up, the Lady Mountaineers were not outshone by any of the stars in this firmament. I hope to be able to say that again when the games begin tomorrow!

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TOURNAMENT DIARY: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12

Bunky’s teams have been characterized by an understanding of what it is to give. On the court they share the ball and share playing time. Off the court they never disdain an opportunity to be good citizens. This morning the team paid a call, as in previous trips to Sioux City, at the Sanford Community Center, which hosts various outreach programs for kids who are at risk, including an alternative suspension program designed to help youngsters continue their education while placed on out of school suspension. This program’s goal is to have students return to the classroom up to date in each subject and with a better understanding of appropriate school conduct.

Once again the Lady Mountaineers mixed easily with the Sanford teenagers, exchanging team chants and leading them in dance and basketball drills. The Berea players have tried to keep things as physical as possible ever since leaving Kentucky. They were easily the most energetic of all the college teams that participated in the Special Olympics clinic yesterday. They’ve been practicing hard. And at the Sanford Community Center their vigor and enthusiasm had everyone fired up.

It was a special morning for the Sanford students and teachers, and many of them vowed to attend tonight’s game and cheer loudly for Berea. When Bunky presented a team-signed basketball to Alternate Suspension Program teacher Nelson Wilson, he received it like an orb of the purest gold. As the Lady Mountaineers left I heard one of them ask, “Can we go back tomorrow?” Not coincidentally, several of the Berea players are future teachers.

Berea’s opponent tonight will be local favorite Morningside College, so the game is getting plenty of local media attention. Because the teams rank 1-2 in NAIA-II in made 3-pointers, a high scoring game is both anticipated and desired by the fans who will pack the place. As the main event on tonight’s card, the Morningside game will follow the always-stirring opening ceremonies and Parade of Champions, where all 32 teams, introduced by a booming-voiced announcer, will march into the arena. At this time each team’s Champion of Character will be announced. (Berea’s designate last year was senior De-An Watkins.)

Following the team’s final practice at the Tyson Events Center, Bunky said, “We’ve tried to prepare and learn about Morningside, but we’ll do our best to play our game. We’re not going to do anything new. We’ve seen that our team can play at a high level when we’re hustling, when we’re shooting and defending and rebounding.

“We’re going to be very aggressive. We’re going to come out and challenge them, get physical, and deny. We’ve got to run at their guards, slow them down by trapping hard in the backcourt. If they have time to look over our heads and throw the ball, we’re not guarding properly. We’ve got to make them put the ball of the floor.

“We want to disrupt their rhythm just like they’re going to try to do to us. We have to defend the arc. We want to eliminate their 3-point shot, and if they’re going to attack the rim we want them to attack it quickly. We would like to run with them. We want to make it a wild and crazy game, because that would help us.

“We let our players know that we believe in them. They’re capable of something special tonight. My wish for them is that when they walk these halls tomorrow, they are remembered and respected as a team that contested every shot and every loose ball, did not quit, never gave up.”

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NO. 2 MUSTANGS CRUISE PAST BEREA, 104-80
by Nathan Hutchinson, Sports Editor, Richmond Register (used by permission)

SIOUX CITY, Iowa— The Lady Mountaineers were able to avoid the kind of disastrous start that led to lopsided losses in each of the past two years, but ultimately they weren’t able to hang around with perhaps the best team in the nation.

No. 2 ranked Morningside College used two big first-half runs to build a 21-point halftime lead, then cruised to a 104-80 win over Berea College Wednesday in the opening round of the NAIA Division II National Tournament in Sioux City, Iowa. Brittany Williamson had a game-high 30 points and 16 rebounds and J.J. Hall added 20 points for the Mustangs (31-3), the 2004 and 2005 national champions.

Ashley Jade Howard had a team-high 25 points for Berea, while senior Stephanie Corry added 13 points for Berea (20-12).

“We had to be perfect, and we weren’t,” Berea coach Bunky Harkleroad said. “They had an answer for everything.”

In the school’s only two other appearances in the NAIA National Tournament (2006 and 2007), the Lady Mountaineers fell into early deficits that were far too large to overcome.

But, this time around they had the lead twice in the opening moments and four minutes into the game the score was tied at nine. Then the Mustangs scored nine straight and later scored 12 consecutive points to take a 19-point lead.

“We just played soft at times,” Harkleroad said. “They are the best team we’ve faced. They’ve got a shot to win the whole tournament.”

Morningside went on to score the first seven points of the second half and quickly stretched its lead to 30 points.

Howard tried to keep Berea in the game in the opening half, scoring 20 points. The freshman hit five-of-10 three pointers for the game and was 10-of-19 from the field.

“She had a great first half,” Harkleroad said of Howard. “But, no one else stepped up.”

Berea led the nation in scoring once again this season, but shot just 32 percent against Morningside. The Lady Mountaineers were 11-of-43 from three-point range and sent the Mustangs to the line 41 times.

Morningside also out-rebounded Berea 69-47.

Junior Candy Walls had 18 points and a team-high eight rebounds for the Lady Mountaineers, Sa’de Mullins added nine points and Annbruce Madden finished with eight points. Corry hit a trio of three pointers and had six boards.

The Lady Mountaineers had just one assist in the first half and finished with nine, while committing 24 turnovers.

“It was just a tough match-up,” Harkleroad said. “Still, I’m disappointed we lost.”

Berea lost to Aquinas College, 84-53, in the first round in 2006 and to Bethel College (Ind.), 98-86, in last year’s opening round.

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TOURNAMENT DIARY: THURSDAY, MARCH 13

31 of the 32 teams in this tournament will end their seasons with a loss. Coping with defeat is part of being alive. Berea's players are learning that now.

On the plus side: Berea turned Morningside over 24 times, as many times as the Mustangs have been turned over all year. Berea scored 80 points on a team that gives up a average of 62 points. Freshman forward Kaylan Dixon observed, “We exposed some holes in Morningside’s defense, and other teams are going to notice.”

Minutes after the game Bunky commented, “We were just outmanned at every spot all the time, and that’s hard. They’re a great defensive team, and their pressure did what it was designed to do. We had a lot of turnovers, and too many of them were unforced. We thought a little too much and made some lazy passes. We didn’t value the ball. We didn’t rebound like we should have, and we let them take too many threes. But the reason for all that is that Morningside is a great team.

“We hung our head a few times, and we let the frustration get to us. But we didn’t quit.”

Stephanie Corry, who played 28 minutes in what would be her last college game, saw it this way: “I believe we prepared sufficiently, but once we stepped onto the court with our young team, everybody was kind of in awe again like in previous years. We didn’t get the effort we had to have to keep the score close.

“For Berea, each individual will have to be stronger if we’re going to be able to bump heads with the teams that are out here at the nationals. These players are big, and nobody’s going to grow on our team. But our players can work on strength and agility and skill, and improving those things will be the key for Berea in the future.”

Sophomore guard Heather Hutchins said, “In the conference championship we played team ball, and tonight we failed to do so. We didn’t move the ball like we should have. We have shooters, and everybody on the team can shoot, but the more we move the ball the more we get the defense out of where they want to be, and then we can get a good shot off. Doing the little things is what counts in the end, like making the extra pass to the person who is open, getting after a loose ball, diving on the floor, blocking out to get that one rebound. Just one rebound can make a difference at both ends.

“We had the biggest chance in the world to win this game, and we could have played with them if we had played team ball. We had it within our fingertips and let it go. We’ve got to be tougher and more physical with players like Morningside has because they want the championship just as bad as we do and will not take no for an answer.

“We will learn from our mistakes. We were talking in the locker room after the game. As soon as we get back to Berea we’re going to start training for next year. Everyone has to work on her ballhandling and her strength and her conditioning.”

As the teams were introduced in the tournament’s opening ceremonies, Hutchins was named Berea’s Champion of Character. Later Hutch remarked, “The Champion of Character Award means a lot to me. I want younger athletes to look up to me because I’m showing them I can play basketball and get good grades and be a good citizen. I hope to show them what they should be.”

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TOURNAMENT DIARY: MONDAY, MARCH 17

At the Sanford Community Center the day before the game, someone served the Berea players a simple two-word question to which they returned, instantly, a one-word response.

Q: Morningside! Nervous?
A: Nope!

But as calm and loose as they appeared as they awaited Wednesday night’s confrontation, the Lady Mountaineers were indeed nervous, although they had been trying hard not to be. They were sailing into uncharted waters, well aware of how rough these seas were going to be while knowing full well they’d never faced such a challenge before. They hoped they could compete with Morningside, knew they were going to try, but were not certain, deep down, that their team was up to it. And no team can defeat a powerhouse like Morningside without complete confidence that it can.

Three of this year’s NAIA-II Final Four teams compete in the Great Plains Athletic Conference. They are Morningside College, Northwestern College, and Hastings College. A fourth GPAC team, from Concordia University, advanced to the quarterfinals after dominating Union College (who defeated Berea twice this year) and steamrolling an excellent Davenport University team. The GPAC stands atop the NAIA-II pyramid because it attracts the caliber of athlete who, in our region, would be playing for NCAA-II schools like Northern Kentucky or Kentucky Wesleyan or strong NAIA-I teams like Georgetown. They enroll freshmen who emerge from the very rich pool of talent that is schoolgirl basketball in rural Iowa and Nebraska, and they fill whatever holes they have with transfers from NCAA-I schools or junior colleges.

Berea chooses to offer no athletic scholarships and admits very few transfers. The last Lady Mountaineer who had previously played basketball at another school was Summer Smith, who came to Berea from St Catharine College in 2002 and had some difficulty adjusting to Berea’s more rigorous academic and labor demands. Berea and its KIAC brethren suit up players who are shorter, slower, and less athletic than a school like Georgetown wants to sign. That Berea teams have won the KIAC without any scholarship athletes is remarkable. To expect any KIAC champion to overcome a GPAC team at the national tournament is unrealistic. But unlikely does not mean impossible, and Berea should have and could have played a better game against Morningside.

The 32 teams that compete in the NAIA-II tournament are seeded 1-8. Morningside, a #1 seed, went 30 and 3 in the GPAC. Berea, a #8 seed, was 20-11 in the KIAC. Morningside’s “A game” is certainly better than Berea’s “A game,” and even the most diehard Berea fan will acknowledge this. But that doesn’t mean Berea had no chance against Morningside.

I give Morningside a lot of credit. They didn’t take Berea lightly and didn’t simply go through the motions. Before the game coach Jamie Sale remarked, “I don’t think I’ve ever coached against a team that shoots that many threes. I think they also lead the country in steals, so they’ll press and run, just like us. We have to make sure to challenge the ball and take care of their three-point shooting. It’ll be a unique experience playing against a team like this. We just have to do a good job of making sure they’re challenged and try to hold their field goal percentage down.”

That was their game plan, and they executed it to perfection. The Mustangs laid a 24-point hurt on the Lady Mountaineers, which is their average margin of victory, and that was as close as Berea had a right to be after the way they played. But while Morningside’s victory was decisive, it was not a rout. I believe that if Morningside played Berea ten times, they would not win all ten of those games.

Why didn’t Berea win this one? The simple explanation is that Morningside has a tremendous talent advantage. But that does not explain why the game wasn’t closer.

Berea might have won:

  • If sophomore forward Calloray Howard had not injured an Achilles tendon in her first shift on the floor. She was not able to return, and Berea missed her strength, her post moves, and her ability to confound an opponent by stepping out and hitting a quick 3-pointer.

  • If the Lady Mountaineers knew how to get quickly into synch after a long layoff. Berea delivered its best performances of the season when it played three games in three days in the KIAC tournament. Berea met Morningside after ten days off. There was a lot of rust to shake off.

  • If the Lady Mountaineers had played the type of team ball they displayed in winning the KIAC tournament. Some key Berea players, in their determination to step up to meet the Morningside challenge, found themselves stepping not up but out, out of their role as cogs in a precision machine. Seeking to elevate their personal games in an effort to carry the team to victory, they tuned out their teammates. Playing within yourself is a key to athletic success because that is how you maintain control. There is such a thing as trying too hard.

  • If the Lady Mountaineers had been able to maintain their fighting spirit. It was good that the players did not approach this game with any kind of swaggering bravado. But the can-do attitude they tried to display turned out to be a veneer. Once they fell behind, a downcast, dispirited bench showed me that the team had used up an insufficient supply of confidence.

Although Berea proved itself the best of the KIAC teams in 2007-08, it was a year of struggle. Whenever the Lady Mountaineers jumped off to an early lead, they did a masterful job of keeping an opponent at bay. But unlike Berea teams of the recent past, they did not excel at coming from behind.

Against Morningside, Berea’s collective ability to give and to trust seemed to desert the team once again. After the game a very disappointed Stephanie Corry said, “We were out of synch again, exactly like every other game we lost this year.”

By the way, how did the tournament’s other #8 seeds fare? Glad you asked. Northwood University lost by 32, Holy Names University lost by 49, and the University of Maine at Fort Kent lost by 73. There, I hope, is a bit of perspective.

When I watched Holy Names play Northwestern College I was stunned by the contrast in demeanor between Holy Names and Berea. Holy Names failed to menace Northwestern at any point. They got clobbered. Yet I saw no evidence that their players felt any pressure at all. I’m not saying the Hawks weren’t trying to do their best, but they appeared to have no expectation that they might win. They seemed to regard the game as a sort of scrimmage. Its outcome did not stir their deepest emotions, and I was certain that the scene in their postgame locker room was not going to be an agony of disappointment and humiliation.

I watched the game with Corry and Dixon, and we asked each other, in retrospect, which attitude would have best suited Berea. Should you choose to shoulder the burden of great expectations and compete as hard as you can against a stronger foe, or should you choose to play for low stakes, risk little, keep smiling, and shrug off an undesirable outcome? Is honor more important, or happiness? I believe, and the two Lady Mountaineers who were with me agreed, that it is better to approach the game with the hope that you can win and push yourself to the utmost in an effort to achieve that, even if you fall on your face. I respect Berea’s coaches and players for bringing this determination to the national tournament, and I’m proud of them.

The last game of the first round pitted #7 Eastern Oregon against #2 Cardinal Strich. The Eastern Oregon Mountaineers, as I’ve mentioned, limped into the tournament without three injured players who had major contributors. Eastern Oregon had qualified for the nationals three times before and lost in the first round each time. Winning that first game is a big hump to get over, as Berea knows. But EOU had a plan to defeat Strich, and the Mountaineer players had the poise, discipline, and confidence to execute it. Whenever those qualities seemed on the verge of deserting them, Coach Anji Weissenfluh settled them down. Continually regrouping and refocusing, the Mountaineers beat Strich by 3 points in the upset of the tournament. It was a heroic performance that confirmed the adage, “That’s why they play the games.”

Berea will always be an underdog at the nationals. But one of these years the Lady Mountaineers are going to outwork, outhustle, and outscore one of the giants they are matched against.

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