BLOOMINGTON —As members of the Illinois Wesleyan athletic department hustle around Shirk Center this week finalizing preparations for the NCAA Division III Women’s Final Four, they have had a few less student helpers.
The ear-to-ear smiles commonplace among the IWU basketball team mean the Titans have made the eagerly awaited transition from event staff to participants.
“We are thrilled to be here,” said sophomore guard Melissa Gardner. “Energy is high. We can’t even contain our excitement. We are so ready to go.”
The No. 7-ranked Titans will appear in the first Final Four in program history Friday in a 7 p.m. game against defending national champion and 12th-ranked Washington University.
The opening semifinal pits No. 11 Christopher Newport against No. 2 Amherst. Saturday’s third-place game is set for 4 p.m. with the national championship contest at 7.
“They are walking on air,” IWU coach Mia Smith said. “They are ecstatic about ordering T-shirts that say ‘Final Four’ and they are wound up about all the tickets being sold. They are pumped up to say the least.”
The 27-4 Titans are still riding the crest of an astounding comeback from deficits of 27-4 in the first half and 45-28 in the second to edge George Fox, 61-60, in last Saturday’s sectional championship at Stevens Point, Wis.
“It’s a dream come true,” said senior Stacey Arlis. “Our big jump was trying to win that game and make it past the Elite Eight since that was the farthest we ever made it. That was our main goal. We wanted it and we weren’t going to settle for anything else.”
Washington (24-5) is appearing in its Division III record 10th Final Four and gunning for its sixth national title. The Bears defeated Amherst in the semifinals and Hope in the title contest last March at Shirk Center.
“It’s nice to have that familiarity, but this is a different team than we brought here last time,” Washington coach Nancy Fahey said. “There is a big separation from last year.”
Senior Alex Hoover is the only current Bears’ starter to start in last season’s Final Four. The 5-foot-9 senior averages 9.8 points and is the school’s career assist leader with 430.
Kathryn Berger, a 6-1 senior who was a key player off the bench a year ago, has taken over as Washington’s top scorer (13.8) and rebounder (6.5).
“Kathryn is our go-to kid,” said Fahey. “She’s a complete player. She knows how to play all aspects.”
The Bears surrender a mere 53.7 points per game while holding opponents to 33.4 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent 3-point accuracy.
“Berger is a great scorer. She can shoot the three, drive to the rim, post up,” Smith said. “They’ve got quite an arsenal of weapons. We will still use our press and see if we can create some chaos for them.”
Washington ousted Wesleyan in a 2009 sectional final at Shirk and dropped that season’s championship game to George Fox. Wesleyan edged the Bears, 73-68, in a Nov. 20 neutral site matchup this season.
“I thought it was an ugly game,” said Smith. “Both teams have dramatically changed the way they play.”
“They know us, we know them,” Fahey said. “It’s kind of a wash.”
The Titans are getting 14.5 points per game from the 5-11 Arlis, 14.0 from 6-0 junior Olivia Lett, 11.9 from 5-10 senior Nikki Preston and 9.4 from 5-10 senior Hope Schulte.
“I think it will come down to who does the little things better,” Arlis said, “and who wants it more in the end.”
WOMEN’S DIVISION III FINAL FOUR
AT SHIRK CENTER
Christopher Newport vs. Amherst, 5 p.m.
Washington (Mo.) University vs. Illinois Wesleyan, 7 p.m.