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Undefeated Polar Bears to host first round of NCAA Tournament

Junior center Amy Bullimore helped lead Northern to their second OAC Tournament title in five years. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

The Ohio Northern women’s basketball team will be dancing for their fourth time in five years, as the NCAA announced this afternoon that they will face Lakeland (Wis.) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night.

There’s something different about this dance, though; for the first time in program history, the fifth-ranked Polar Bears will play host for the opening weekend.

Northern was selected as one of 16 schools to host the first two rounds of the national tournament. King Horn Sports Center will house two matchups on Friday night: Trine and Illinois Wesleyan will duel in the early time slot while ONU and Lakeland will face off in the nightcap. Friday’s victors will play on Saturday for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.

Ohio Northern is 13-0 at home this season, and the Bears have lost just six home games over the past five seasons.

“We’re going to try to focus and stay in the moment; one minute, one possession at a time,” head coach Michele Durand, who will be coaching in her fourth NCAA Tournament, said. “I think we’re ready, and I’m glad we’re at home -- I think it helps us.”

But there’s something else that’s different about this season for Northern -- they will head into March undefeated for the first time in school history.

The Polar Bears went 25-0 in the regular season, earning a double-bye as the one-seed in the OAC Tournament. Northern went on to beat Marietta by one in the tournament semi-finals and Wilmington by 15 in the finals, giving the Polar Bears a 27-0 record as they steamroll into the Big Dance.

This season, Northern claimed their fourth OAC regular season title and second OAC Tournament title in the past five years.

This year’s senior class, consisting of point guard Britt Lauck, shooting guard Angela Tesny and forward Amauria Campbell, is just one win away from becoming the winningest class in program history. This will be the seniors’ third NCAA Tournament, but for Lauck, some things just never get old.

“We knew we were in, but it’s still overwhelming just to hear that you’re playing for [the national championship],” Lauck said on Monday afternoon. “Initially, I just think that I was grateful to be in, and to host; I think that’s a big advantage for us.”

But amid the initial shock, Lauck also knows that there is a mission to be completed.

“I know we have good teams in our bracket, and we’ll just have to deal with each of them as we get to them,” Lauck said.

 

The matchup

ONU will face the Lakeland University Muskies in round one on Friday night. Lakeland (20-7) hails from the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference, where they finished second in the regular season. The Muskies won their conference tournament on Saturday by beating Concordia University Wisconsin, 64-60.

This will be Lakeland’s seventh trip to the NCAA Tournament, and their first since 2010. They have a 1-5 record in the tournament.

Ohio Northern will be making their ninth NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, with a 6-10 all-time record in the Big Dance. Last year, ONU lost to Carnegie Mellon by three points in round two; in 2013, Northern lost in the second round to Hope, and in 2014, they fell to Transylvania in round one. The last time ONU made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament was in 1988, when they advanced to the Elite Eight before falling to eventual runner-up St. John’s Fisher (N.Y.) College.

Both Lakeland and Northern will be the sole representatives from their respective conferences in the national tournament.

Lakeland, a university of nearly four thousand students located in Howards Grove, Wisconsin, is 395 miles away from Ada. Friday will be the first ever meeting between the two programs.

“I can be honest with you, I don’t know anything about Lakeland -- I was kind of surprised that they would be traveling here,” Durand said this afternoon following the selection show.

The Muskies are led in scoring by senior guard Bailey Grayvold (16.5 points per game) and in rebounding by junior forward Rachel Stankevich (7.1 boards per game). They score an average of 66 points per game, giving up just 54. Lakeland has won seven straight games.

Meanwhile, Ohio Northern is led this season in scoring by Lauck (14.6 points per game) and in rebounding by junior center Amy Bullimore (8.1 boards per game). The Polar Bears score an average of 74 points per game, giving up just 56.

Ohio Northern will be without backup center Emily Mescher for this year’s tournament, as she suffered an ankle injury last week heading into the OAC Tournament.

As Northern did last week, Durand said that the Bears will have to rely on Bullimore’s ability to stay out of foul trouble, as well as backup forward Cheyenne Raker’s ability to play both the ‘four’ and ‘five’ positions, to succeed this weekend.

“It’s a huge challenge for us at the inside positions,” Durand said. “Cheyenne really is a four, and Amy is our only five now, so we really have to hope that Amy doesn’t get into foul trouble and Cheyenne is going to have to do a great job when she’s in there.”

Durand and this year’s senior class will enter the tournament having accomplished nearly everything -- see the plethora of OAC regular season and tournament titles, NCAA Tournament appearances, and an unprecedented undefeated regular season -- except make it past the second round of the national tournament.

For Lauck, the goal still looms large in the distance.

“We’ve kind of reached all the other stepping stones along the way, so the next thing for us [is] first to win that first game, so we can get to the second game. And I know that all of us would love to keep going past that, and we haven’t gotten to do that yet, so I think it’s in the back of our minds for sure,” Lauck said. “But I think we all are on the same page about having to play one game at a time, to get through them as they come.”

 

Competitive quadrant

The winner of ONU vs. Lakeland on Friday will face the winner of Trine vs. Illinois Wesleyan. The Trine University Thunder (24-2) are riding a 10-game win streak after winning the MIAA regular season and conference tournament titles this past week.

The Thunder are ranked 17th in the nation and are led by MIAA MVP Brandi Dawson (a 2015 transfer from Division I Wright State University), who scored 33 points against tourney-bound Hope earlier this season, and MIAA Defensive Player of the Year Hayley Martin (a 2015 transfer from Division II Nova Southeastern University), who averages 15 points per game.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Wesleyan Titans (18-9) will enter this year’s tournament as one of 21 at-large bids. The Titans fell to Wheaton (23-5) by four points in the CCIW Tournament final on Saturday. It is Illinois Wesleyan’s first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2012, when they won the national championship.

This will be IWU’s 10th tournament appearance, as they made six consecutive showings from 2007-2012, including an Elite Eight appearance in 2009, a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2010, a Final Four appearance in 2011 and a championship in 2012.

Five of Illinois Wesleyan’s nine losses this season have come to tournament-bound teams, including Wisconsin-Whitewater, Washington University- St. Louis, Thomas More and Wheaton (twice). The combined record of those nine opponents is 185-53.

Between Trine and Illinois Wesleyan, Durand believes that Ohio Northern would have its hands full if they were to advance to the second round

“I know that Illinois Wesleyan -- their record doesn’t indicate it -- but they play a really tough schedule, one of the toughest in the country this year. And we know Trine is pretty good, they have two transfers on their team,” Durand said.

“I think at this point in time, everybody in the tournament is good. Everybody you will face is good. And at some point in time, you gotta face good teams, and that’s the way it goes.”