Redhawk coach Joan Bonvicini is on the verge of a remarkable NCAA tournament berth, but she has one thing on her mind: win the day.
LAS VEGAS — A most incredible women’s basketball story sits one victory from fruition now, but don’t tell that to Seattle University coach Joan Bonvicini. She refuses to daydream. She refuses to let any minds drift into premature coronation.
The Redhawks blitzed former powerhouse Louisiana Tech, 80-61, in the Western Athletic Conference semifinals Friday afternoon at Orleans Arena. Now, they need only to beat Idaho at noon Saturday to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. A seasonlong goal dangles 40 minutes away. So does an exclamation point to an improbable first season of being tournament eligible and playing in the WAC.
Newbies aren’t supposed to be this good. This is amazing.
For evidence, look at the struggles of the Seattle U men’s basketball team this season, which experienced the typical growing pains of this process. Bonvicini’s team is on the front porch of a miracle.
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But don’t tell her that. Not now. You can’t wish a championship. You win it. There’s a process to it, and that’s all Bonvicini wants to discuss. That’s all she wants her team to think about, too.
“We’re not thinking too far ahead,” she said when asked about the importance of Saturday’s WAC title game. “We’re focused on the process. Right now, it’s about winning the day. We won the day today.”
No, they dominated the day.
It was one of the best and most overwhelming performances you’ll ever see. The top-seeded Redhawks scored the game’s first 12 points, held No. 5 seed Louisiana Tech to 17.2 percent shooting in the first half, led 38-14 at halftime and went up by as much as 30 points after the break. Though they committed 27 turnovers, partly because they tried to rest key players after taking a big lead, it was hard to find fault in this effort. Seattle U played like a team that wants to win a championship.
“Very dominant,” Bonvicini said. “Defensively, we did a great job.”
Using an array of man-to-man as well as zone defenses, the Redhawks flustered the Lady Techsters with their pressure. La. Tech’s best player, forward Whitney Frazier, picked up two quick fouls and played just four minutes in the first half, and Seattle U exploited her absence.
The Redhawks’ defense always starts with Sylvia Shephard, the long and athletic 5-foot-10 junior guard. The WAC Defensive Player of the Year scored the game’s first eight points and played with relentless effort on both ends of the court. And she did it as she always does, never smiling, looking like the most intimidating player on the court.
“Everybody says I look mean all the time,” Shephard said, laughing. “I’m just focused and dialed in.”
Bonvicini thought Shephard “had something to prove” because she got into early foul trouble and struggled in Tuesday’s quarterfinal win over New Mexico State. She was the best player on the court early in the game, making three-pointers, deflecting passes and dishing assists. She finished with 13 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Forward Ashley Ward led the Redhawks with 14 points. WAC Player of the Year Kacie Sowell and forward Brenda Adhiambo each had 12 points and five rebounds. Daidra Brown had 11 points off the bench.
Seattle U was superior in every way. The Redhawks shot 55.1 percent and held La. Tech to 34.4 percent for the game. They out-rebounded the Lady Techsters by 14.
“We kind of dug ourselves a big hole,” said frustrated Louisiana Tech coach Teresa Weatherspoon, the legendary former point guard who led the Lady Techsters to the 1988 national title.
You don’t want to fall into a hole against the Redhawks, especially right now. They’re committed to making the most of this postseason.
And that leads us to this potentially historic title game. Seattle U made the decision to move its athletic department from Division I to II 33 years ago. Over the past five years, the Redhawks have gone through the difficult process of transitioning back to D-I. Bonvicini was hired four years ago, and she has elevated her program and, in some ways, the entire department.
A victory and NCAA berth would be further proof that Seattle U isn’t crazy in this pursuit. It would inspire every program at the school. But no matter how close, it’s just a fantasy right now.
Bonvicini is focused on making it a reality. A few weeks ago, she discussed the WAC tournament with her team for the first time. Her message: Trust me. I can help you win this. Since then, she has been strict about staying in the moment. She’s keeping the approach simple.
Win the day.
Win one more day.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer