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Lady Polar Bears looking for revenge in OAC Tournament

After losing in the OAC Tournament semifinals last season, the Polar Bears will look to take back the crown this weekend. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

Michelle Durand’s practices are not quiet. There is clapping, and cheering, and intensity. And there’s a reason for that.

“Silent practices are not championship practices,” says Durand.

And this season, like in the past four, the ONU women’s basketball team has been anything but quiet in the OAC.

Durand’s Polar Bears won the OAC regular season title for the third time in four years, finishing the regular season with a 22-3 overall record, 17-1 in the conference. They finished five games ahead of second-place Mount Union, and are currently ranked 10th in the nation.

“It’s huge,” Durand said of winning the conference title. “That’s our main goal at the start of every season, so to accomplish that is big for us.”

The Lady Bears are outscoring their opponents by an average of nearly 17 points per game. While their dominance can be seen on the stat sheet, both Durand and her upperclassmen agree that their success starts in the locker room. It starts with their culture.

“We have a very unselfish, unified, and supportive culture,” Carly Thomas, senior guard, said. “At the beginning of the season, coach always tells us that we will have a role and that we need to accept it to be successful. Even if it's a role on scout team and you don't get the minutes you want (most of us have been there), we all know and understand that it's our responsibility to be the best in that role that we possibly can and that our role is important.”

This year’s senior class has had to work their way up the ladder, as Thomas mentioned; three of the four seniors were JV players during their freshman season, a year in which the varsity team went 27-2 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“It was tough on them, but they saw what it took,” Durand said. “Now, they can help relate to some of our players who are going through that this year.”

This year’s senior class, comprised of Thomas, Karissa Steffas, Precious Ramsey and Brooke Espenschied, is the winningest class in program history. They boast a 92-17 record, winning 84% of their games as they head into their final OAC tournament. They have lost five home games over their four years at Northern, and have yet to lose this season in Ada.

One of their five home losses came to Capital, last year in the OAC semifinals. Northern led 20-2 at one point in the first half, but could not contain a furious Capital comeback that was catalyzed by 23 Polar Bear turnovers. ONU would lose by 12, and miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years as a result.

Junior guard Angela Tesny believes that one of the team’s goals this season is avenging last year’s heartbreaking tournament loss to Capital.

“Capital has always been a tough contender and refuses to go down easily,” Tesny said. “One of our goals this season was to win the OAC tournament, especially after that tough loss to Capital last year.”

The Bears lost again to the Crusaders this season, on the road in late January, after beating Capital at home in December. Although it seems as if Capital has had ONU’s number lately, Durand does not believe that they present a matchup problem for her Polar Bears.

“They’re a good program. They’ve won national championships before, so they know what it takes,” Durand said. “I don’t think that they present any specific matchup problems for us. We both played badly at each other’s gyms.”

In this year’s OAC Tournament, the Lady Bears are seeded first and will face fourth-seeded Baldwin Wallace at home in the semi-finals tonight. Meanwhile, Mount Union and Capital will square off in the other semi-final at the same time.

Regardless of what happens in the conference tournament this year, the 10th-ranked Bears are likely guaranteed a spot in the NCAA Tournament. It will likely be labeled as another ‘successful’ year in ONU women’s basketball history. But for Thomas and the rest of the Polar Bears, their mission is not complete.

“It's always nice to see hard work pay off, and being regular season champs is definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thomas said. “But we won't be satisfied this year without an OAC tournament championship.”

This year, it’s not about getting into the dance. It’s about revenge. And these experienced, hungry Polar Bears will settle for nothing less.