The NCAA forbids artificial noise makers. The policy makers need not have worried about that Monday night (Mar. 12) at Kates Gymnasium. All the noise that nearly blew the roof off of Kates Gymnasium was natural.
For over two hours, the sound reverberated off the walls of the old house as the Ashland University fans jumped up and down and serenaded the AU women's basketball team with shouts, screams and whistles. As loud as this was, no one would confuse it with the sound of music. But that all changed by the end of the evening because thanks to a 78-65 by the Eagles over Wisconsin-Parkside in a Sweet 16 game, they are going to what's commonly referred to as "The Big Dance."
It's truly time to strike up the band. For the first time in the program's history, the Eagles will play in the Elite Eight. That extravaganza begins next Tuesday (Mar. 20) in San Antonio, Texas. The 31-1 Eagles, ranked second in the country, will take a 31-game winning streak to Texas. By that time, maybe the noise they heard on Monday will have started to die down.
"They were unbelievable," said Ashland forward Kari Daugherty (Fresno, Ohio/Dayton) of the Ashland throng which numbered 2,644, a record for a women's basketball game at Ashland. "When we walked in there with 30 minutes left in warm-ups we said, 'This is more fans than we had for our first game."
"We were quivering, it was so cool," added sophomore guard Alyssa Miller (Zanesville, Ohio/Tri-Valley). "Classes started today and it was huge to have our friends there."
Friends and foes of the Eagles saw another workmanlike performance. Ashland out-rebounded the Rangers (24-6), 38-22. That led to a 13-4 edge in second chance points for the Eagles. The Rangers have the ability to wear down teams with their suffocating defense and with 6:05 left in this game, the score was tied, 58-58, the sixth deadlock in the game.
At that point, both teams looked winded. But it was Ashland that had the stronger legs down the stretch. The Eagles scored the game's next 10 points to take a 68-58 lead with 1:01 to go. Daugherty, who was named the Midwest Region Tournament's Most Valuable Player, had four points in that run and senior guard Jena Stutzman (Berlin, Ohio/Kent State) had four points, all on free throws.
"A little bit of everything," replied UWP coach Jenny Knight-Kenesie when asked what went wrong in that game-turning stretch. "We got some decent looking shots. Obviously, on those we didn't have enough under our legs."
The other two points in this crucial stretch came from junior forward-center Beth Mantkowski (Fairlawn, Ohio/Copley), who for the second straight game, provided huge minutes off the bench. Mantkowski had six points and two rebounds in 25 minutes. Again, it was thought that UWP had the edge in depth against the Eagles, but Mantkowski's play negated that theory.
"Beth has stepped up major this year," said Stutzman. "She brings it every time she steps on the court."
"Every time I go in the game, Coach (Shannon) Sword tells me to play defense and rebound," said Mantkowski. "Anything else I get is extra."
UWP is known as a solid team with a veteran backcourt and the thought before the game was that maybe this veteran team could wear down the Eagles with their pressure and do the little things to stay in the game. Instead, it was AU that did the little things that paid off in a big way. AU, the national leader in free throw percentage (82 percent), was 20-of-22 at the free throw line. The Eagles were in the bonus situation with 10:58 left in the game. In the second half, Ashland went 17-for-18 at the charity stripe.
"I thought it was crucial," said Miller. "We were 20-of-22 at the foul line. A lot of teams choke and lose games at the free throw line."
Both teams shot 47.5 percent from the field, so that work at the free throw line was critical. The one player who didn't have any problem finding the range from any spot on the floor was Daugherty. She was 10-of-20 from the field and 4-of-8 from three-point range. Daugherty finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds. Both figures led all players in the game. This was Daugherty 24th double-double of the season. She leads the nation in twin killings. What made this game different was her proficiency from three-point range.
"She's a tough player, she can do a lot of different things," remarked Knight-Kenesie. "I think a lot of those shots we contested. A lot of the shots she hit, I thought we did all we could have done."
"I think they were looking for me to shoot the pull-up or take it in," Daugherty said. "I was able to knock a couple down today."
Daugherty was supported by 20 points from Stutzman and 13 from junior guard Lindsay Tenyak (Wadsworth, Ohio). The Ranger received 22 points from guard Jadee Rooney, 19 points from forward Brittany Beyer and 10 points from forward Amy Selk.
As the Eagles started to mount that decisive run with the score tied at 58, the crowd showed no fatigue. It roared with every positive turn of events for the Eagles and there were plenty of those. After the Rangers tied the score, they missed their next seven shots. Miller rejected one of those. She finished the night with just four points, but had five rebounds and three steals. She had four offensive rebounds and all came in the first half, allowing the Eagles to extend possessions. AU led at halftime, 36-33.
This was Ashland's 23rd consecutive win at home dating back to last season. This 31st straight win sets the school record for the longest winning streak by any varsity team (breaking the mark of 30 consecutive wins by the 1998 softball team). Take that crowd and combine that with Ashland's skill level and the Rangers, who lost at Michigan Tech in last year's regional championship game, had their work cut out for them.
"I think our experience, having been here before and playing in a hostile environment in the past, we knew that wasn't going to fluster us," said Knight-Kenesie. "Our kids stayed poised when they had to. I don't think that flustered us at all."
Maybe not, but it did add to this juggernaut of an AU team.
"There's a level of confidence," explained AU head coach Sue Ramsey, who will be coaching in the Elite Eight for the first time in her career. "It's not arrogance, it's confidence in each other and the system. They didn't rattle, they didn't yell at each other. They just huddle."
Stutzman and Miller were named to the all-tournament team along with Rooney, Beyer and Quincy's Ali Schwagmeyer. (A replay of Monday's game will be shown on Channel 20 in Ashland on Tuesday evening at 8 p.m.).