The culmination of a year-long process will come down to one game on Friday (March 24) night.
Ashland University's women's basketball team, 36-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country, will face No. 18-ranked Virginia Union (28-4) in the NCAA Division II national championship game on Friday at 7 p.m. at Alumni Hall on the campus of Ohio Dominican University.
For the Eagles, Friday night's game is the end of a process which began shortly after an 86-60 loss to Drury in a home Midwest Regional semifinal on March 12, 2016.
"Last year, we fell short of what our potential was, tremendously," said Ashland junior forward Laina Snyder. "As postseason started, the week after we had lost, we started talking national championship, because that's what we knew we could have gotten to last year, and we didn't.
"That's been the driving force behind this entire season."
Said junior forward Andi Daugherty, "Last year, it was the foundation for this year. The returners from last year gained so much experience and wisdom and knowledge from our shortcomings last year."
The result of that year-long focus has been one of the top seasons in NCAA Division II women's basketball history – so far.
"What a time," said Ashland head coach Robyn Fralick, who enters the title game at 67-2 in two seasons guiding the Eagles. "March Madness, it's unbelievable. We're really, really grateful for this season, for this opportunity to play in a national championship game.
"One of the things we talked about as a team going into this season was, what's the story going to be? When we look back on this season, what story are we going to tell? You control that. Obviously, winning's really fun, and you want that to be part of your story. Playing in a national championship game is something that we wanted, and here we are, in the middle of the story."
The Eagles feature the only two 2016-17 Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) first-team All-Americans in Friday's contest – Snyder and Daugherty. In Ashland's two wins in Columbus this week, 82-67 over West Texas A&M on Tuesday (March 21) and 90-77 vs. No. 10 Harding on Wednesday (March 22), Snyder and Daugherty have combined for 98 points.
Snyder has posted 51 points, 16 rebounds, nine assists and six steals while hitting 23-of-33 (69.7 percent) from the field and 5-of-6 (83.3 percent) from the free-throw line in two Columbus contests, and Daugherty has collected 47 points, eight boards, five assists and two steals while connecting on 14-of-27 (51.9 percent) from the floor and 17-of-19 (89.5 percent) from the foul line.
As has been the case all season, however, the Eagles' success in Columbus has been a group effort. In the win over the Bison, five Ashland players scored in double figures and four had three or more assists in putting up a program-record point total in an NCAA postseason contest.
The Panthers have reached the national championship game thanks to a pair of close wins this week – 78-73 over Columbus State in the Elite Eight and 86-81 over California Baptist in the Final Four.
Senior forward Lady Walker has posted two double-doubles in Columbus, going for 17 points and 10 rebounds vs. Columbus State and 18 points and 19 boards vs. Cal Baptist. In two games off the bench, senior guard Ashley Smith has scored 42 points, including 28 in the Final Four victory.
"It certainly is an honor and a privilege for us to be here, representing Virginia Union University," said Panthers head coach AnnMarie Gilbert. "It's been a marvelous journey to get here. I'm so proud of the hard work, the focus, the dedication of our players to stay the course and to get here."
NOTEBOOK: Daugherty will make her 104th consecutive start on Friday…Senior guard Kelsey Peare will set a new program record for career games played at 130 in the title game…Ashland's .800 winning percentage (20-5) all-time in the Division II postseason is the best at that NCAA level among programs with at least 20 games played…There have been just five seasons with at least 36 wins in the history of Division II women's basketball, and Ashland has two of them (37 in 2012-13, 36 in 2016-17).
FAN INFORMATION: Tickets for Friday's game are $10 each, limit two per individual and will go on sale at 6 p.m. on-site at Alumni Hall...Fans who already purchased tickets won't be allowed into the gym before 6 p.m...There has been a fan rate of $129 set up at the team hotel for those interested at https://www.starwoodmeeting.com/events/start.action?id=1703239806&key=30A2D908...Spots on the fan buses going to Columbus on Friday can be reserved here - https://securelb.imodules.com/s/950/index.aspx?sid=950&gid=1&pgid=1296&cid=2577&post_id=0. Cost for a spot on the bus is $15, and does not include the ticket for the game.