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Polar Bears advance to Elite Eight for first time in school history

Junior guard Lindsay Black shoots over the Geneseo defense. Black and the Polar Bears beat Geneseo 72-55 on Friday night in the Sweet 16. (Northern Review photo/ Shane Tilton)

Eight minutes and 54 seconds. That’s how long the fifth-ranked Ohio Northern women’s basketball team held 20th-ranked SUNY Geneseo scoreless to begin their Sweet 16 matchup on Friday night.

The Polar Bears jumped out to a 21-0 lead during that time span, as six different ONU players scored before Geneseo got on the board.

“We got fired up in the locker room before the game and it carried out onto the court, and we were ready to go,” junior center Amy Bullimore said. “We had a lot to prove and we don’t take any game for granted. We wanted this to be their last game and for us to keep going.”

The Polar Bears clearly didn’t take Geneseo, who came into Friday’s contest with a record of 28-1, for granted. Northern controlled the game from start to finish and won 72-55, advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.

Ohio Northern was led in scoring and rebounding by Bullimore, who kept her postseason rampage going with 23 points and 12 rebounds in the effort. The First-Team All-OAC center is averaging 20.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game in this year’s NCAA Tournament, despite being the subject of frequent double and triple teams.

“I think I just know that my team has my back,” Bullimore said in Friday’s postgame presser. “So if I’m getting double-teamed and it’s from Mar’s player, for example, she’ll tell me so I know who to kick it out to. Tori was really good at that so I found her open a couple of times. I think talking, offensively and defensively, helps us a lot.”

Geneseo head coach Scott Hemer said that, while his team held Rochester’s 6’2 center Alexandra Leslie, First-Team All-American and National Player of the Year finalist, to 19 points in their second-round win, they had a much harder time containing Bullimore.

“I’ll tell you, we did a pretty good job on that Leslie kid from Rochester, who’s a finalist for National Player of the Year, and that kid can play,” Hemer said. “But we had a much harder time with Bullimore. She can hurt you in a lot of ways, and we knew that going in.”

“We were going to try to choke the ball out of her a little bit before she even touched it versus just collapsing and trying to double or triple team once she had the ball, and to credit ONU, they move the ball really well, and it’s tough do that when you’ve got three guards on the perimeter that can spread you out. But when she touched the ball, she put the ball in the basket. She’s a pretty legit player.”

Coming into Friday’s game, much of the talk was about Geneseo’s defense; the Knights were allowing just 47.6 points per game, as they ranked sixth nationally in scoring defense. Ohio Northern scored 46 points in the first half.

“We were just moving the ball and sharing the ball really well and getting shots within our offense,” sophomore forward Jenna Dirksen said. “We were getting shots in rhythm and people were stepping up and knocking them down.”

Even in the postgame press conference, after the buzzer sounded and the dust had settled, Hemer still struggled to explain his team’s slow start.

“I think we’re all a little disappointed in what happened coming out of the gate,” Hemer said. “I wish I had answers for everybody on why that happened and why we looked so tentative, but I give credit to ONU for putting us in that position. Fortunately for us, we were able to turn things around a little bit, but when you’re down 25-2 [after one quarter], it’s a long way to go.”

Hemer cited Northern’s stingy pack-line defense and loud home crowd as potential reasons for his team’s difficulties.

“They kind of isolated us to one side of the floor offensively, [and] we weren’t able to put any pressure on the defense with any kind of tempo on the offensive end,” Hemer said. “And I thought that defensively, we just weren’t working very hard. It’s tough to go on the road this far and have a crowd like that -- they had a great crowd here tonight, and that didn’t help us any.”

A new attendance record was set once again at King Horn Sports Center on Friday night, as 1,325 people showed up to watch the undefeated Polar Bears make their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1988. ONU hosted last weekend’s tournament action as well, breaking previous attendance records on both respective nights.

“Just hearing all the people behind us, it really helps to hear all the support,” Dirksen said. “And obviously when we make a shot, just to hear the crowd roar... it’s awesome.”

Geneseo had given up 60 points or more just three times this season coming into Friday’s contest, but Northern had no problem scoring the ball through multiple different outlets. ONU’s depth was on display again last night as all 10 Polar Bears who played, scored. Dirksen and senior point guard Britt Lauck both had nine, while sophomore forward Tori Wyss contributed a career-high 10 points off the bench for ONU.

After the lengthy first quarter drought, Geneseo would break into the scoring column with a pair of free throws from senior guard Katie Durand at the 1:06 mark. But ONU took a 25-2 lead after one quarter, as they held Geneseo to 0-15 shooting from the field, while the Bears themselves shot 10-15.

“It’s kind of the exact opposite of what happened last week, wasn’t it?,” ONU head coach Michele Durand said, referring to last week’s second round game against Trine, when Northern trailed 8-2 after one quarter. “We had two points in the first quarter and luckily [Trine] didn’t have 25. It happens sometimes, one team gets hot and the other team isn’t, and luckily it was us. We’ve talked about starting better, so that was a big deal tonight.”

Ohio Northern led 46-15 at halftime and cruised to victory in the second half, as Geneseo’s late-game push was “too little too late,” in the words of Hemer.

Friday marked the end of a season marred by tragedy for the Knights. Last January, a senior on last year’s Geneseo team was killed in a double-murder suicide. Then, this December, just days before Christmas, a freshman on this year’s team was killed in a car accident. The Knights wore warmups that expressed remembrance for their fallen freshman, and they also placed her jersey on a chair at the end of their bench during the game.

For Hemer, Friday marked the end of an emotional season for his team. 11 players had been on both teams and had experienced both tragedies.

“I said to this group in the locker room at the end of the game, they’ve been through a lot in the last 12 and a half months,” Hemer said. “The scoreboard out there today certainly will not define them, it will not define what they’ve had to overcome to be here.”

The Knights finished their season with a record of 28-2, while Ohio Northern remains undefeated at 30-0. The Polar Bears will face 10th-ranked Christopher Newport tonight in the Elite Eight at King Horn, with tip-off set for 8 p.m.

Tonight will be ONU’s first ever appearance in the Elite Eight, and the winner will move on to the Final Four next weekend in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Christopher Newport comes into tonight’s game having knocked off 18th-ranked Hope in the Sweet 16, as the Captains found themselves down six at halftime but stormed back behind a suffocating full-court press to win the game by five.

“They’re unbelievable,” Durand said of CNU last night. “It’s going to be a long night, [assistant coach Mark Huelsman] and I are going to be up late tonight trying to figure that out. Because they press you, they’re long, they’re athletic, they can score from about every position, so they’re really good. But so are we. We can’t be afraid of them, we’re on our home floor.”

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