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Northern advances to Sweet 16 behind depth, defense

Junior center Amy Bullimore scored nine of her 20 points in the fourth quarter of ONU's second-round win over Trine on Saturday. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

For just over an hour on Sunday, Michele Durand thought her team was going to New York. She wasn’t pleased.

“When I first heard, I was mad, because I thought we would host,” Durand said with a smile after practice on Monday.

Just after noon on Sunday, the NCAA announced the host locations for the next two rounds of the Division III women’s basketball tournament. Durand, the coach of the undefeated, fifth-ranked Northern women’s basketball team, did not understand why her team would not be hosting.

No. 5 Women's Basketball to travel to #20 Geneseo State (N.Y.) for Sweet 16 on Friday https://t.co/iInfDk6A3j

— Ohio Northern Sports (@ONUsports) March 5, 2017

The move didn’t seem right to athletic director Tom Simmons either, and he called the NCAA to try to set the record straight. Over an hour later, the correction was made: Ohio Northern would host the Sweet 16.

No. 5 Women's Basketball to host Sweet 16 on March 10-11 after NCAA issues correction https://t.co/WopfINPxOT

— Ohio Northern Sports (@ONUsports) March 5, 2017

According to Simmons, the NCAA determines host locations by looking at two main factors: first, they try to let the highest seed in the quadrant host; then, they try to base the location off of which place would require the least amount of travel from visiting schools.

In Northern’s case, the four teams left in their quadrant are ONU, SUNY Geneseo (N.Y.), Christopher Newport (Va.) and Hope (Mich.). Although ONU is the highest seed of the four, the NCAA had thought initially that SUNY Geneseo should host because of proximity; however, they did not realize that Hope would have to go through Canada on their plane trip to New York, which was brought to their attention on Sunday after they made the initial announcement, according to Simmons.

The NCAA did not want Hope to go through Canada, and their bus drive to Geneseo would have been farther than one to Ada, so the NCAA corrected their decision and announced that Ohio Northern would be hosting, just over an hour after the first announcement.

“It was an honest mistake,” Simmons said.

King Horn will play host to NCAA Tournament action for the second weekend in a row, after Ohio Northern hosted the first two rounds last weekend for the first time in school history, with Northern winning on both nights.

The Bears trounced Lakeland (Wis.) in round one on Friday night, 68-36, and then emerged victorious in a defensive struggle against fifteenth-ranked Trine in round two on Saturday, 55-48. The King Horn attendance record was broken both nights, with 876 fans attending on Friday and 907 spectators on Saturday. Northern advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1988 with Saturday’s win.

It wasn’t pretty, however; ONU shot just 30 percent from the field and 26 percent from three-point range on Saturday, scoring only two first-quarter points against the nation’s eighth-best scoring defense.

“I think if someone told me we would shoot that poorly, I probably would’ve said that we would’ve had a tough time winning that game,” Durand said.

However, Northern made up for their lack of offense on the defensive end, giving up just 15 combined points to Trine’s two stars, forward Brandi Dawson and center Hayley Martin. The duo averaged over 31 points per game together this year, accounting for nearly half of the team’s scoring.

“Our defensive gameplan -- I thought our girls executed it to a T, perfectly,” Durand said. “I told them at halftime that if we can shoot 15 percent and still be up by two that it was going to go better in the second half, and to stay patient.”

The Polar Bears led 20-18 at the half, but ended up winning by seven points behind a dominant late-game push from junior center Amy Bullimore. After missing her first two layup attempts, Bullimore scored nine of her 20 points in the fourth quarter, as she outplayed Trine’s Martin, the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year, down the stretch.

“Amy’s a really good player; she struggle a little early on and in the middle of the season, but she’s kept it up in practice and kept working. Things started to turn around for her, and Saturday just showed what she could do,” Durand said of Bullimore, who was recently named First-Team All-OAC for the second year straight. “I think she’s a really elite center too, but I think [Martin] got tired because Amy was running her up and down the floor a little bit.”

Northern experienced a relatively even scoring night across the board -- no starter had less than four points -- which is the norm for Durand's club, as they have three players averaging double figures. One of those double-digit scorers is sophomore forward Jenna Dirksen, who made a pivotal three-pointer at the end of the shot clock with 4:21 to play, stretching Northern's lead to a game-high seven points. Dirksen believes that ONU’s depth played a role in Saturday’s win, as they faced a Trine team that relied heavily on two primary scorers.

“On Saturday before the game, we said [that] mentally, as a team, five people can beat two people,” Dirksen said. “So, if we can just make some of their less-dominant players try to beat us, we think we can win playing as a team, [as opposed to] just their two strong players.”

In the defensive effort against Dawson and Martin, Northern took advantage of Trine’s hesitancy to take outside shots with their backcourt (Trine's starting point guard and shooting guard did not attempt a field goal on Saturday). ONU’s guards sunk in on Trine’s stars, who were primarily guarded by power forward Amauria Campbell (below) and Bullimore, and essentially double-teamed the post every time they caught the ball.

“We were looking to crowd the lane a little bit on number 23 (Dawson), and we did a really nice job of that,” Durand said. “And then also, [we tried to] help off of their perimeter players, we’re lucky that they weren’t as good of shooters -- although they did knock down some shots -- but we could really help out on number 14 (Martin), their big post.”

Ohio Northern gave up 84 total points over the first two rounds of play, the lowest total of any team remaining in the tournament. While they limited Trine’s dynamic duo on Saturday, they nearly shut out Lakeland’s leading scorer on Friday. Senior Bailey Grayvold, who averaged 16.5 points per game for the Muskies, scored just three points on Northern in their first-round matchup.

On Friday, defense will be the theme once again as ONU will face 20th-ranked SUNY Geneseo (28-1), who has the sixth-best scoring defense in the country, giving up just 47.6 points per game. Ohio Northern ranks 50th in the nation, giving up exactly 55 points per game.

In total, nine of the 16 teams left in this year’s tournament rank in the top 50 in the nation in scoring defense.

Think the old coaches adage, ‘Defense wins championships,’ is out of style? Think again.

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