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Already UAA champions, the sixth-ranked Maroons begin their national title quest tonight at 4 p.m., opening the NCAA tournament against Hanover in Grand Rapids, MI.
Though their record is impressive, Hanover (25—1) comes into the tournament ranked only 25th, a result of their weak schedule. The Panthers did not play a ranked team, while the Maroons (22—3, 14—0 UAA) took down 11th -ranked Wash U and 12th-ranked Rochester both home and away. Still, Hanover boasts three players averaging above 10 points per game.
In addition, the battle between third-year forward Taylor Simpson and forward Molly Martin will match the UAA’s player of the year against the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference’s most valuable player.
“Hanover’s a great team as evidenced by their record; they beat us up pretty good during my first year and they have been a very strong team the last few years,” said head coach Aaron Roussell, who was named the UAA coach of the year, said. “They are loaded with experience, and from what we watched on Monday they have a ton of talent. They put a lot of points on the board, which is obviously scary. However, we have a lot of tape coming on them and we will be more than prepared.”
Should the Maroons pull out their 19th straight victory tonight, they would play their second round game tomorrow, likely against 18th-ranked Calvin.
While the competition should get progressively stronger, the Maroons are guaranteed to play teams ranked at least 10 spots lower than themselves until the Elite Eight, when they could possibly face off against first-ranked Thomas Moore.
“I wouldn’t say we are happy with our draw because no matter where you are placed in the brackets, you always have a tough team to face,” said third-year guard Meghan Herrick, who made the All-UAA first team along with Simpson. “Now we are only playing the best of the best in the nation.”
However, the women narrowly avoided a much worse draw. While the Maroons might face the nation’s top team in the Elite Eight, Thomas Moore will play its Sweet Sixteen against whoever emerges among second-ranked Hope, ninth-ranked Denison, 10th-ranked Depauw and 11th-ranked Wash U. Considering what could have been, third-year guard Bryanne Halfhill disagreed with Herrick’s assessment.
“I feel like we got the best scenario we could have hoped for,” said Halfhill, an all-UAA second-team selection along with third-year forward Morgan Herrick. “As soon as we saw Hope and Depauw in the same bracket, we were really hoping to avoid that one, and we did.”
But Halfhill also acknowledged that the draw matters only so much.
“I truly believe that the only team that is going to beat us is ourselves,” she said. “As long as we keep outworking other teams and wanting it more we’ll be just fine. That hard work starts in practice. The way we practice is the way we play. We have some pretty tough practices where we get super competitive with each other. However, the best thing about our team is that after scraping on the court, we can come into the locker room and call each other out and joke about it.”
“I honestly love this group of girls, and we have created something really special,” she added. “If we were to lose today, this would still have been the best season of my life and one of the best teams I have ever been a part of, but I don’t think anyone on our team will be happy with playing any day short of March 19.”
The Maroons will face Hanover today at 4 p.m.