Take a breath, Eagle Nation, you have the first team national championship in school history.
That gulp of air you just took is one more than the Dowling Golden Lions got on Friday (Mar. 29) in San Antonio where the Ashland University Eagles won the NCAA Division II women's basketball national championship with a 71-56 victory.
Ashland is the second GLIAC team to win a women's basketball championship, joining Grand Valley State in 2006.
The Eagles came into this tournament ranked second in the nation. A year ago, they finished as the national runner-up and since that Friday last March, they vowed to return to this game. They've never been ranked lower than third this year. Now, there's no need to take a vote on where they stand.
"My young ladies, I couldn't be more thrilled, more happy, with the performance, not just today, but for the last 365 days because they've been a determined bunch of young ladies since we left her last year as the runner-up," said AU head coach Sue Ramsey. "They've worked hard to make this transition and make this season everything it was. It's a great celebration right now, it's a mixture between smiles, laughter and tears. Everything is full circle and it's real times two. When it soaks in, I think they'll realize, as do I having coached 34 years, that this is a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. They deserve every bit of it."
For Dowling (30-4), this game was like a last gasp effort from start to finish. At halftime, AU led, 38-25. That's the most points the Golden Lions, the national leader in scoring defense (47.8 ppg.) and field goal percentage defense (30.8), allowed in the first half this season. Ashland's final point total represented the most points Dowling allowed this season.
The Eagles (37-1) showed their own style of suffocating defense. For the Golden Lions to have a chance, they needed to keep the game close – they are not a team blessed with the offensive diversity of Ashland. The Eagles took away just about every option the New York school had. Forward Danielle Wilson (17.2 ppg.) could never get going – at halftime she had four points – and Dowling was staring at a hole the size of a Texas oil well.
"If you're going to lose, lose to the best team in the country," said Dowling coach Joe Pellicane. "They're a great team, great coach. We were thoroughly beaten, but we didn't quit.
"When it's constantly uphill, your options are limited," continued Pellicane. "We had a chance to cut it to seven at one point. They spread the floor, they made shots. They played the game inside-out and they had us on our heels."
The point Pellicane was talking about came with 15:00 showing on the clock in the second half. Dowling got a jumper by Seja Gamble to slice the AU lead to 45-36. Both teams missed shots on their next possessions and then junior guard Alyssa Miller (Zanesville, Ohio/Tri-Valley) was on target with a three-pointer and Ashland was ahead, 48-36 with 13:39 to play. Dowling would get to within eight points with 12:35 left, then sophomore guard Taylor Woods knocked down a triple and the Ashland lead was 11 points. AU's lead never left double figures again.
Dowling began the game by trying to crowd AU guard-forward Kari Daugherty (Fresno, Ohio/Dayton), the two-time NCAA Division II player of the year. The Golden Lions repeatedly doubled down, sending defenders from several spots in an attempt to limit Daugherty's effectiveness. Woods foiled that strategy. She had a team-high 12 points at halftime, going 4-of-7 from the field and 3-of-5 on three-pointers. Daugherty had 10 points and seven rebounds at the halfway point.
Senior guard Lindsay Tenyak (Wadsworth, Ohio) chipped in with five first half points and senior guard-forward Ashley Dorner (Bellville, Ohio/Clear Fork), who provided a lift off the bench on Wednesday against Western Washington, had four first half points.
AU led, 9-3 after four minutes and 20-7 with 13 minutes left in the first half.
"That first little spurt really helped keep us calm," Daugherty said. "I said earlier, it's a big stage and everyone, I'm sure, had a little bit of jitters. To be able to come out and do pretty well the first few minutes I think calmed us down. We were able to run with it from there."
For the game, Daugherty led all players in the contest with 26 points and 12 rebounds. That's her 12th double-double in NCAA postseason play, she never played an NCAA postseason game where she didn't record a double-double. This twin killing also assured that she will be the national leader in double-doubles (25) – by herself. This is the second consecutive year she's the national leader. She was named the most outstanding player of this year's Elite Eight.
Woods had 20 points. She and Daugherty were the only AU players to reach double digits in scoring. Senior forward Daiva Gerbec (Dublin, Ohio/Bishop Watterson) had eight points and eight rebounds. Woods and Gerbec were named to the Elite Eight all-tournament team.
The Golden Lions didn't have any success cutting into the Ashland lead in the opening minutes of the second half. By the time the second television timeout came – with 11:25 remaining in regulation - the Eagles were in front, 53-40. The Eagles made six of their first 10 shots from the field in the first 8:35 of the second half. In that same stretch, they were 2-for-3 on three-point attempts.
By the midway point of the second half, the Eagles were operating at full efficiency. With five minutes left to play, AU had a 65-46 lead.
"It's more than one thing," said Pellicane, when asked to explain AU's success. "They have terrific players all over the floor making winning plays. They dictated it. They got off to an early start and it seemed like we were running uphill the entire way."
Wilson led Dowling with 15 points and six rebounds. Those aren't bad numbers, but the transfer from Baylor never took over the game like she did the first two games Dowling played in San Antonio.
"Kari's obviously one of the best defenders in the nation," replied Miller, when asked how the Eagles slowed down Wilson. "Not only is she an outstanding defender, we have an awesome team defense as well. We hang our hats on that. Defense and rebounding win championships."
AU out-rebounded the Golden Lions, 34-23. Dowling shot 38.5 percent (20-of-52) from the floor.
Connie Simmons had 13 points and Julia Koppl had 11 points. Wilson and Simmons were selected to the all-tournament team.
"It was a great game and Dowling's a class-act program," offered Ramsey. "They also play the game the way it should be played. For us, this was a great opponent and we love playing teams that play the game with fundamentals and with class. Dowling is that team. They will continue to be a presence at this level, I'm sure, with the coach they have and the players they have."
Ramsey is an expert in that regard. This game puts an end to a two-year Ashland run that is as good as any program has enjoyed in recent years. Over the last two years the Eagles won one national crown, played in two national title games, won a pair of GLIAC championships and NCAA Midwest Regional championships and put together a 70-3 record. Throughout that stretch, Daugherty established herself as one of the best players to ever play NCAA Division II women's basketball.
"I think for me, I can pick three words that are running through my head," said Daugherty. "One is humble, to be able to stand up here and say that we are the best team in Division II basketball is incredible. One team gets to say that every year.
"Another is obviously, excited," continued Daugherty. "Like Taylor and Alyssa said, we put in so much hard work to be able to be here. To be able to come out with a victory instead of a loss is so much better.
"Also, there's a part of me that's a little sad just because I am a senior. Walking off the court, I'm like 'Wow, this is my last college basketball game I'll ever play.' To be able to end it on a win, very, very few players get to say that. I feel incredibly blessed to have this season with these girls."
Daugherty's presence garnered the majority of the headlines throughout this season, but Tenyak and Miller also started in last year's title game. This team lists six seniors and Gerbec and Woods, who missed last year's title chase due to injuries. It talked about unfinished business since the day practice opened.
"I think after last year we had a goal in mind and that was to get back here and win a national championship," said Woods.
"Experience in life is always beneficial," said Pellicane when asked about Ashland's experience edge in this game. "However, it's only beneficial if you apply it properly. They deserve great credit. They deserve to be national champions."