It was the day before Whitworth boarded a commercial flight for Atlanta and today’s 3:30 p.m. date with 14th-ranked Emory in the first round of the NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament, and the Pirates had some unfinished business.
The team interrupted the final practice on its home floor to present a plaque of appreciation to the guy who drove the chartered bus on most road trips.
“We have a favorite bus driver and I called him Sunday to see if he might be available to drive us to Portland because I was sure that was where they were going to send us,” coach Helen Higgs said. “I think the team is as disappointed that he can’t go with us as they are excited to be going themselves. They wanted to find a way to take him with us.”
That’s life in Division III college basketball: enough long bus rides to places like McMinnville and Walla Walla, Salem and Forest Grove to turn your bus driver into one of your biggest fans and allow your basketball team to collectively fall in love with your bus driver.
“The support we get is incredible,” Higgs said. “Our fans are dedicated. They’re passionate. I’ve heard from professors from all over and so many parents have come up to me and asked if they could give me a hug. And it extends out. I’ve gotten texts and e-mails from all over.”
The D-III tournament is little sister to The Big Dance. The field of 64 teams includes schools the average fan never heard of, but that doesn’t mean the tournament takes place in a vacuum.
“It is a lot like the State B tournament,” Higgs said. “The people who follow it are passionate, and our fans are like family. I’ve already received text messages from Whitworth alums who live in the Atlanta area saying they’re going to try to get to the game and wishing us luck.”
This is Whitworth’s second tournament berth under Higgs, who is in her 19th year at the school. The last time the Pirates were invited, after the 1999-2000 regular season, they lost a first-round game at Pacific Lutheran.
Where the Division I tournament draw involves “bracketology,” the D-III version relies heavily on geography to match teams up. The women’s tournament is made up of four-team pods to cover first- and second-round games. By NCAA rule only one team can fly to the host site; the other three can travel no farther than 500 miles. Whitworth flew to Atlanta; Ferrum and Huntingdon, who play at 12:30 p.m., arrived at Emory by bus.
“Our goal this year was to get to the NCAA tournament,” Higgs said. “Now that we’re in, we’ve recast our goals a little. We’ve never won a game in the tournament, so that’s a start. We’ve already beaten five ranked teams, so beating six is our next goal.”
Higgs likes her team’s chances against the Eagles (24-2).
“I think that if we can survive the first five minutes, we’re going to be just fine,” Higgs said. “We have to get through the nerves and the adrenalin rush that comes from playing in the tournament, and I think we will.”
The Pirates have been unflappable this season in amassing more than 20 wins for only the second time under Higgs, the first since the 2004-05 season. No major highs and no significant lows, especially against tougher, ranked opponents. The loss of senior guard Emily Guthrie to a midseason knee injury only served to make the team even more focused.
“Our three seniors have done a good job of pulling them all together,” Higgs said. “They don’t want to let (Guthrie) down, and they’ve all stepped their game up a notch.”
Freshman guard K.C. McConnell led the Northwest Conference by hitting .500 from beyond the 3-point line and senior Emily Travis was second, shooting .406. Meanwhile, the Pirates have been one of the best teams in the nation with a 1.04 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Travis and junior guard Kayla Johnson lead the team in scoring, combining for almost 22 points per game, with the team averages 69.6 points.
Moreover, the team has shown an impressive maturity and toughness.
“We used to joke that we looked to recruit younger sisters,” Higgs said. “In fact, a lot of our players ARE younger sisters – they’ve grown up competing against older brothers. They get along, they all stay on an even keel and they all support each other.”