BLOOMINGTON — Egged on by its fun-loving pep band and loyal home crowd, the Illinois Wesleyan women’s team has played some of its best basketball at Shirk Center this season.
Coach Mia Smith hopes her No. 16-nationally ranked Titans (24-3), who went 11-0 at home, can continue to feed off such encouragement now that they’ve been named hosts for the first two rounds of the NCAA Division III Tournament on Friday and Saturday.
On Friday, IWU will face Marietta College (24-4), a school of 1,200 students based in Marietta, Ohio. The Pioneers went 14-4 in the Ohio Athletic Conference, losing twice to Ohio Northern and once each to Otterbein and Mount Union.
The other first-round matchup features No. 6 Trine (24-3) opposite No. 7 DePauw (25-2). Friday’s winners will meet on Saturday. Game times have yet to be announced.
“We are just so excited (to host),” said Smith, whose team is coming off a 62-60 win over Wheaton in Saturday’s College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Tournament finale.
Smith says her team fought a little extra hard because she suspected a victory could earn an NCAA hosting opportunity.
“It’s worked out to our advantage,” she said. “With the crowd and the support that we had, the enthusiasm from our pep band on Saturday night, if we can duplicate that this weekend, we’re going to play really well.”
IWU’s four-team “pod” is one of two in the 64-team NCAA Tournament that has three ranked teams. The fact unranked Marietta has received votes in the national poll makes this grouping especially tough.
“It is a tough pod, but at this point in time, I think every team is good,” Smith said. “So now you’ve got to study and prepare and then give it everything you’ve got.
“This isn’t a time when you can make a lot of mistakes and say, ‘We can get better tomorrow.’ You’ve got to be better immediately. We’re looking forward to it. It’s just such an exciting time and we’re thrilled to be in (the NCAA Tournament) with our men.”
IWU’s pod feeds into a March 9-10 sectional that could include No. 2 Wartburg (27-0) and No. 8 St. Thomas (25-2). The Final Four is March 16-17 at Rochester, Minn.
After facing CCIW opponents who know her team so well, Smith likes facing a squad that IWU has never played.
“Now is the time that we’ve really got to work on our press,” she said. “Our run-and-jump has to be a difference maker. We’ve got to put it into play and cause turnovers and be able to score in transition off those turnovers.”
Marietta averages 78.7 points to rank 10th nationally while Wesleyan ranks fourth at 84.5. The Pioneers are led by 5-foot-7 senior Brooke Borich (14.5 ppg) and 5-3 senior Amisha Herd (13.2).
“It will be a really high-scoring, intense game,” Smith predicts.
Smith saw DePauw in the Midwest Challenge in November in Greencastle, Ind., where the Tigers did not face the Titans. In last year’s NCAA Tournament, IWU lost to Trine of Angola, Ind., 63-56.
“In that game against Trine, I did not feel we played very well,” Smith said. “If we do get a chance to play them, I’m sure we’ll be ready to avenge that loss.”
The NCAA field reflects IWU’s strength of schedule as six opponents made it in including No. 12 Wisconsin-Whitewater (24-3), No. 20 Rose-Hulman (24-3), Oberlin (21-7), Washington of St. Louis (18-7) and Wheaton (22-5).