Women’s hoops prepare for Summit tournament
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MACOMB, Ill. — The Western Illinois women’s basketball team was back at practice Tuesday for the first time since winning the Summit League regular season title outright against South Dakota. They will take on the bottom-seeded Denver Pioneers in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in the opening round of the tournament on Saturday at noon.
“We took a couple days to enjoy what we accomplished,” said JD Gravina, Western Illinois women’s head basketball coach. “Today in practice we were really able to get after it and prepare for the conference tournament.”
Coach Gravina and his players all seemed to agree that the whole experience of winning a championship was surreal. The entire team was even invited to President Jack Thomas’ house on Monday to celebrate the title. Still, now that the chaos is behind them, it’s back to business.
The “must-win” feeling is nothing different for Coach Gravina’s team. They posted eight wins in a row to conclude the regular season and earn the top seed. In order to ensure the outright title, they needed all eight of these wins.
“We’ve been in the tournament mindset for over a month now,” said Gravina. “There’s been that feeling of just survive and advance because we knew what we had to do to get the top seed.”
The Leathernecks have not won a game in this tournament since the 2011-12 season, Gravina’s first season in charge of the program. The win was one of the biggest upsets the Summit has ever seen, but Gravina admitted there has been added pressure to succeed.
“I worried a lot about winning a game again in this tournament when the year began so we could finally get that monkey off our backs,” said Gravina. “That sense of urgency left as the year progressed. This team is unlike any other I have coached in the past and they have made me supremely confident.”
One of the biggest concerns surrounding the Leathernecks is their lack of experience. We are yet to see how this particular team will react to the pressure of being the best seed in a competitive conference.
“I think they’ll handle it great,” said Gravina. “I have so much confidence in our leadership and unselfishness. We all truly want what is best for each other and that we’re loose.“
The Leathernecks have displayed a calm attitude throughout their impressive run and always seem to be collected on the court. They will be put to the ultimate test as they enter a hostile South Dakota environment with a target on their backs.
“We don’t think that the outside world sees us as the favorite,” said Gravina. “The Dakota schools have been extremely successful in the past so I think we still have that chip on our shoulder. I think we are more comfortable in this position.”
Before the Leathernecks focus on round two and possibly the championship, they must take down Denver for the third time this season. As the lowest seed in the conference, the Pioneers can be looked at as a trap matchup for Western. Traditionally, coaches have tried to scare their teams into not overlooking an opponent. Coach Gravina has a different approach.
“You can work so hard on trying not to overlook one game that it can actually hurt you,” said Gravina. “My job as a coach is to instill confidence in the team. I don’t want to keep reminding them not to overlook Denver, and I don’t have to.”
Gravina also has his mind on bigger things, which he has all season. Even though they’re not overlooking anyone, the dream of cutting down the nets in South Dakota are quite vivid for him and his players.
If the Leathernecks survive Denver, they will take on the winner of South Dakota (4) and Omaha (5). This opens up the possibility of a rematch with the Coyotes after they polished them off at Western Hall on Saturday. Western also defeated South Dakota on the road on Jan. 28. If the rematch occurs, expect a Coyote-friendly crowd in Sioux Falls.
The round two games will take place on Monday at noon and at 2:30 p.m., followed by the Summit League championship game on Tuesday at 1 p.m. IUPUI (2) will take on North Dakota State (7) after Western on Saturday at 2:30, and round one will conclude on Sunday when South Dakota State (3) takes on Oral Roberts (6). All games take place on the same floor.