SAN ANTONIO (March 13, 2017) – Alyssa Ward (SR/Palmeto, Fla.) drove the lane, with Joe Jackson—from the Saints' men's basketball team and Red River Athletic Conference (RRAC) leader in blocked shots—stepping up to cut her off.
On Thursday, a little more than 24 hours before the Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) Saints women's basketball team set off for Billings, Mont. and the NAIA Division I Women's Basketball National Championship Tournament, the women practiced against the men's basketball and club teams; preparing for the size and length of The Master's University (TMU) Mustangs in various zone defenses.
The No. 16-ranked Saints and No. 17-ranked Mustangs are the fourth and fifth seed in the Naismith bracket of the national championship tournament, set to play Wednesday, March 15, at 10:45 p.m., central time (9:45 p.m. local mountain time). The winner will advance to play undefeated, top-ranked Freed-Hardeman.
The Saints earned their sixth berth to nationals after capturing the regular season RRAC title and receiving an automatic bid. The Mustangs punched their ticket to nationals after receiving an at-large bid based on their Top 25 rank.
"[The Master's] have played really well the past two weeks. They beat [No. 5-ranked] Vanguard in the conference tournament," Head Coach Christopher Minner said. "They're capable. They have a few veterans who've been to the tournament a few years in a row. It should be a good game."
TMU is led by Bianca Cubello, a 6-foot-1-inch forward averaging 12.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 2.3 assists per game. With a roster full of 5-feet-8 to 6-feet-1 players, the Mustangs rank 10th in the NAIA in scoring defense per game; a result of a deliberate pace offensively and a defense that holds opponents to 42.7 percent shooting, which is ranked 17th in the nation.
"Pressure the ball," Minner shouted, disrupting the scrimmage to demand his defense reset its full-court press. After instructing the men to inbound the ball along the baseline once more, Minner gave one final warning to his team.
"If we don't pressure the ball," he said, pointing each line of the defense forward, "we are going to lose."
The Saints lead the NAIA in steals per game (14.38) and rank second in points per game (84.69). They're at home when they can create controlled chaos, unleashing athletic forwards and guards like Ward in the open court, which in turn frees shooters like Julia Rendon (JR/San Antonio, Texas) or Lenoir on the perimeter.
TMU is more accurate from deep, shooting 33.1 percent from behind the 3-point line to OLLU's 29.8 percent; but the Saints rely on volume, making 7.72 3-pointers to the Mustangs' 6.9 and taking 872 free-throw attempts to just 478 for TMU.
"We've got to make shots. It's going to come down to executing our offense, making shots and dictating tempo," Minner said. "We're one of the few teams that plays as fast as we do up there. So we're already different. If we can get the tempo where we'd like it, other teams will have to make an adjustment in a short amount of time."
The Saints haven't played the Mustangs this season but have experience against a reasonable facsimile in Vanguard in a 60-91 loss back in November in the Jackson Rotary Classic, which included several nationally ranked teams. Vanguard and TMU both hail from the Golden State Conference, which features four teams in the top 25 and all, according to Minner, play a similar brand of basketball.
Early injuries—losing Nakia Page (SR/Bakersfield, Calif.) for the season and Alyssa Ward for a stretch—and inexperience proved too costly against elite teams to start the season, but the Saints tore through their conference schedule, showing major development from key players down the stretch.
"We're healthier. We had a bunch of new players and our veterans were hurt. When we played that schedule, I think it took some adjusting," Minner said. "We got to conference and got some confidence and got better. Francesca Patrick (JR/Killeen, Texas) is a lot better. Rachel Baity (JR/San Jose, Calif.) is a lot better. I think, from what I've seen, we're the most improved team in the country. What that equates to in the tournament, I don't know."
Key to the Saints' game plan is Ward, the RRAC Defensive Player of the Year. Her ability to disrupt offenses in the backcourt, using her length and athleticism to harass ball handlers and shrink passing lanes, can make it difficult for opponents to get into their offense comfortably. Offensively, her ability to get out into transition and get to the rim creates easy points and opens up the 3-point shooting.
"If we push the tempo and stick to coach's game plan, we'll be perfectly fine," Ward said. "Early in the season, we were still just getting familiar with each other. We're more comfortable, we know where our teammates are going to move, it's gotten a lot better."
Baity has put together a string of strong rebounding performances off the bench for the Saints in recent weeks. Patrick has set career highs across the board when given opportunities to start, showcasing some deft ball-handling ability to break down defenders one-on-one. Quintianna LeShore (JR/Indianapolis, Ind.) has worked on a pull-up game, which could prove valuable finding the gaps in opponents' zone defenses, away from shot blockers.
Lenoir has even settled down, hitting nine 3-pointers combined in games against LSU-Alexandria and LSU-Shreveport.
"Throughout the season, we've gotten a lot deeper. People are stepping up," Jessika Montalvo (SR/Naples, Fla.) said. "If everyone plays their role and plays hard, I think we can go a long way."
Montalvo is something of an x-factor for the Saints, providing energy, skill and defensive versatility from the front court position that is capable of taking larger, slower players out of their comfort zone at times.
Next to her in the starting lineup, Whitney Sandmann (JR/Bentonville, Ark.) has 3-point range with some ability to attack closeouts and slower defenders with a quick first step and a nice pull-up jumper.
"I think we have an advantage outside the paint, drawing them out and making them move," Montalvo said. "We're a little smaller, so we have to be more agile."
Aside from Ward and Montalvo, this is a relatively young Saints team. But under Minner, the team has an established identity that makes it easier for runs at the national tournament year in and year out.
Athletic Director Jack Hank congratulated the team, saying, "What the ladies have been able to accomplish from 2009 to now, making six national tournament appearances, is an outstanding testament to all the student athletes who have come before. As well as our current student athletes, who are succeeding on the court."
History at nationals
The Saints first qualified for nationals in 2012, when they won the RRAC tournament title; they lost in the first round to Oklahoma City University. In 2013, the Saints won the RRAC regular season title, and advanced to nationals, losing to Rogers State University. The Saints repeated the conference regular season title in 2014, and they defeated Talladega College in the first round of nationals, and fell to Loyola University in the Sweet 16 round. The following year, the Saints won their third regular season title, advancing to the final round, defeating Martin Methodist College. They fell to Oklahoma Baptist University in the Sweet 16 round. Last season, the Saints won the regular season and tournament title, and defeated William Woods University in the first round. The Saints were upset by Benedictine College in the Sweet 16 round. Overall, their record at nationals is 3-5.
The Master's have made 12 trips to nationals and the Mustangs' record is 7-11.
Live streaming and live stats
Saints fans can watch the March 15 game by visiting https://portal.stretchinternet.com/naia/. The fee to purchase the game is $9.95; packages are available to purchase additional games as well. To follow live stats, visit here.
Our Lady of the Lake University is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2016-2017 as a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The University began competing in the NAIA in men's soccer and volleyball in 2007. A year later, they added women's soccer, golf and tennis. In 2009, the Saints began competing in cross-country, softball and basketball. In 2014, OLLU added two more sports — baseball and track and field. There are now 13 intercollegiate athletic teams at OLLU. All athletic alumni and up to two family members will receive free admission to basketball and volleyball games throughout the season. Baseball is not included in this special offer. All other home games are free and open to the public.