National title game preview: No. 22 UW-Whitewater vs. No. 1 DePauw

 

By Kevin Cunningham

The Warhawks women’s basketball team enters the national championship game after a thrilling 64-62 overtime victory over d3hoops.com’s No. 6-ranked team, the Amherst College Lord Jeffs.

Junior guard Mary Merg hit not one, but two buzzer-beaters to send the ’Hawks to the team’s first ever national championship game. The team entered Friday night’s game confident off of  an Elite Eight victory over No. 2 Hope College last weekend. The ’Hawks will face the No. 1 DePauw University (34-0) Tigers for the Division III national championship at 6 p.m. CST, Saturday, March 16 at DeVos Fieldhouse in Holland, Mich.

DePauw head coach Kris Huffman never pointed to the ’Hawks’ No. 22 ranking, only giving praise to the Tigers’ final opponent.

“They’re very athletic and have great depth,” Huffman said. “It’s a tough one day prep. They’ve got the inside game and they’ve got great guard play. Hopefully we will find a little more comfort on the offensive end.”

The Tigers are the final unbeaten team in D-III women’s basketball, and have been ranked No. 1 since the first week of the season. The undefeated team comes in with an average margin of victory of 26.8 points per game.

The Tigers are from the North Coast Atlantic Conference and are the only team from their conference that made the field of 64. Despite conference play not being challenging, they have won each of their NCAA Tournament games by double digits except for the 59-56 Final Four victory against No. 15 Williams College.

The Tigers are an extremely balanced team, featuring no statistical superstars. By having great depth, and a team that features seven dangerous scorers, the undefeated Tigers from Greencastle, Ind. have no glaring weaknesses.

Six of the team’s seven top scorers are juniors or seniors. The Tigers shoot 44.2 percent from the field and the ’Hawks enter the national championship game shooting 41.2 percent.

A few players to look for on the Tigers include junior forward Alex Gasaway, sophomore guard Savannah Trees and senior forward Ellie Pearson. Gasaway leads the team in scoring, averaging 13.6 points per game. Trees is second on the team in scoring, averaging 11.6 points per game and has shot 45 percent from behind the 3-point arc. Pearson comes in as the team’s leading rebounder, averaging 8.1 rebounds and 7.9 points per game.

Two of the ’Hawks’ eight leaders in minutes are freshmen, but head coach Keri Carollo believes in her inexperienced, yet talented newcomers. To start the overtime period, freshmen Abbie Reeves and Lisa Palmer were out on the court closing the door on the Jeffs’ season.

“Our freshmen have really stepped up for us and have grown into being confident women out there,” Carollo said. “Nothing really phases them. As you can tell by Abbie’s look on her face, she’s stone cold and Lisa’s been so strong for us all year.”

The ’Hawks will also need two of the leaders on the team in junior point guard Kaitlyn Thill and senior center Cortney Kumerow to play up to their potential. Thill has often been given the task of defensively shutting down the opposing team’s best perimeter player. In order for the ’Hawks to play the best game they can, speeding up the Tigers and creating turnovers will be a must.

Kumerow will have a size advantage in the paint Saturday night. The tallest player that averages over 10 minutes per game for the Tigers is the 5-foot-11-inch Pearson.

Kumerow has seen a lot of double teams throughout the course of WIAC play, but has not seen as many during the NCAA Tournament. If the Tigers can’t contain the 6-foot-1-inch Kumerow, expect a double team to arrive.

The Tigers come into Saturday’s national championship game out-rebounding their opponents by an average of 12.9 per game. They also hold their opponents to 24 percent shooting from behind the three-point line. The ’Hawks made zero 3-pointers in the first half against Amherst.

In order for history to be made Saturday night, the freshmen will have to step up. Thill and Kumerow need to play the way they have all year, and the 3-pointers will have to fall the ’Hawks’ way.