On Tuesday (March 21) night, the No. 1-ranked Ashland University women's basketball team will begin play in its third NCAA Division II Elite Eight in six seasons, and will do so as one of just five undefeated women's or men's teams at all levels of the NCAA.
Ashland has the opportunity to become the first D-II women's basketball team to ever finish a season at 37-0 – thanks in some measure to the Eagles' play of the season to date, courtesy of senior guard Alex Henning.
On March 5, in the 2017 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship game at Kates Gymnasium, the then-30-0 Eagles trailed Grand Valley State, 71-66, with five minutes to play. Enter Henning, whose 3-point field goal started Ashland on the 19-5 run which would give it the league tourney championship.
"I was open, and we were down at that point," said Henning, who has only attempted 57 shots from beyond the 3-point arc at Ashland. "It's now or never. I didn't want to lose that game. Just playing with that confidence as a senior, I've grown in that a lot. I don't think I was that confident coming here.
"It just showed that hard work does pay off."
"It's a shot we see her make all the time," said Ashland head coach Robyn Fralick. "It's a shot she shoots confidently all the time in practice. While I was really proud of her, it wasn't a surprise. When you're a senior, there's always a different sense of urgency that surrounds you, and she played with that."
Winning is nothing new to either Ashland or Henning. In the 71 games the senior point guard has started as an Eagle, 68 have resulted in wins (.958).
Unlike the other 11 players on the roster, however, Henning's route to a potential national championship was more circuitous. Coming out of Centerville High School, Henning played her freshman season at Division I Bucknell. After seeing action in 19 games off the bench, it was time for a change.
"They saw me in some AAU showcases. It was between them and Navy, actually," Henning said of the Bison. "It just wasn't the right fit. I remember coming on a visit prior to going to Bucknell. I didn't think it was the right fit, but then I came back, and it definitely was and everything clicked. I'm just so glad that I ended up here.
"There's such a sense of family here at Ashland, and that's what really drew me in."
Biding her time as a sophomore backup, playing 32 games and starting four, Henning has been Ashland's starting point guard since – and the result has been a lot of success, including a pair of placements on the All-GLIAC Defensive Team. This season, Henning is hitting 57.5 percent of her field goals, second-best on the team, while averaging 5.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals per game.
"Kelsey and Rachelle were here before me, and they're honestly my biggest role models, because they've showed me so much of what this program's about," she said.
Now, as her collegiate career winds down, Henning gets to do so with a chance to win a national title not so far away from home.
"A lot of my family's coming up, people from high school," she said. "It's only an hour from my house, so it's nice just to be able to perform in front of those people who care about me and care about this team.
"It's just going to be spectacular playing in front of so many fans, because I know the Ashland faithful will be there in purple and gold. Just hoping to get a win and bring it home."