3 women's teams look for perfect endings in Indianapolis
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Thomas More arrived on the big stage Friday.
When the defending Division III national champions walked into their Indianapolis hotel, they were greeted by a banging drumline and waving pom-poms just a short stroll away from the four teams vying for the Division I title.
See, it's not just Final Four weekend any more. With the Division II and III championships being played here, the Great Eight has turned Indy into title town.
''It's something these girls will never forget,'' Thomas More coach Jeff Hans said following the welcome reception. ''To be the first teams to be able to play at the Final Four, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the (NCAA) championships, that's something special.''
Now comes the hard part: getting the star-struck players to focus on a potentially perfect weekend.
If top-ranked Connecticut extends its 73-game winning streak by beating Oregon State on Sunday night, it will face either Syracuse or Washington as it chases an unprecedented fourth straight championship.
Lubbock Christian, a former NAIA school that reached the title game in its first season of NCAA postseason eligibility, will become the third Division II school to finish an undefeated season - if it beats Alaska-Anchorage on Monday.
Thomas More has lost only one regular season game in four seasons and will try to extend a 65-game winning streak Monday afternoon against Tufts. A win would give the Saints their second straight national title.
Only twice in NCAA Tournament history have all three champions been undefeated - in 2014 when it was UConn, Bentley and FDU-Florham and in 1995 when it was UConn, North Dakota State and Capital.
The most prominent figure in the sport, Geno Auriemma, knows all about these other undefeateds.
The Huskies crushed Lubbock Christian 95-39 in a November exhibition game, and he's become a big fan of Thomas More.
''I'm rooting for St. Thomas More for the next 30 years,'' he said during Wednesday's national conference call. ''I root for the top dog because I know how hard it is to be there, to stay there, to accomplish what you're trying to accomplish when everybody's taking shots at you.''
He might temporarily put his cheering on hold this weekend, though, for a personal reason.
Tufts coach Carla Berube, the 2015 Women's Basketball Coaches Association Division III coach of the year, played on Auriemma's first championship team.
So after making the free throws that sealed an undefeated season and championship run in 1995, Berube and her team will now try to upset the favorite in Tufts' first title-game appearance.
Auriemma said he hopes to attend the game.
After Tufts showed up at its hotel with a police escort about 45 minutes late, but amid the same fanfare Thomas More received, Berube did not take questions from reporters. Instead, a hotel worker whisked her away.
''When Carla Berube was a player at Connecticut, I think she probably said one word as a freshman, two as a sophomore, three as a junior, and then I think she may have said a sentence when she was a senior. So for her to go into coaching was an unbelievable shock to me,'' Auriemma said Wednesday. ''For her to be a really good coach, I'm not surprised because she's really competitive, she's very bright, she's a tough kid.''
The challenge now is adapting to this unfamiliar environment.
They will have deep shooting backgrounds, loud roars, potential distractions and the knowledge that the sport's biggest name, Auriemma, is interested in their games. They will play in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, an NBA arena that can seat a little more than 17,000. Hans said the biggest venue his team played in this season had a capacity of about 5,000.
And for the unbeaten teams, it's all about finding a finishing touch that will make a special weekend historic.
''It' no easy task, but I hope all three of us (unbeaten teams) can do it,'' Hans said. ''It's been a challenge every day, it's something these kids thrive on.''