BLOOMINGTON — After months of facing opponents familiar in the ways of Illinois Wesleyan women’s basketball, the Titans get to battle someone new at 5:30 p.m. Friday in the first round of the NCAA Division III Tournament at St. Paul, Minn.
But there is irony in the way Titan coach Mia Smith has prepared for Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Lutheran (26-1).
“A lot of times when I’m prepping my girls for our opponents, I say this girl is like this (other) player,” said Smith, who likens Wisconsin Lutheran star Jen Downden to Wheaton standout Hannah Frazier.
Downden, a 6-foot senior, averages 16.2 points on .460 shooting and is her school’s career scoring leader.
“She does take more shots than what the Frazier girl does,” Smith said. “Her foot speed may not be quite as fast, but she has a lot of the same type of shots: the step-back three, post moves down low, etcetera.”
Smith is leaning toward having 5-11 senior Ashley Schneider guard Downden.
“We are fortunate that we have an Ashley and a Raven (Hughes), who can probably defend her as well,” Smith said.
Smith sees a lot of “Wheaton-type” plays in Wisconsin Lutheran’s style, which features a five-out, spread offense and a Millikin-like man-to-man defense.
Smith faced Lutheran and Coach Klay Knueppel in the 2011 NCAA Tournament when IWU won, 84-69. She still has her scouting notes from that game, but Knueppel isn’t using any of the offensive schemes he did then.
Lutheran has won 15 straight since a 61-52 loss at Benedictine. Along with Downden, the Warriors start 5-10 Kelly Tramburg (9.8 ppg), 6-1 Maddy Elrod (9.6), 5-11 Lexi Reinke (7.0) and 5-4 Maddie Cruz (3.8).
Lutheran’s average margin of victory, 24.4 points, ranks second nationally behind St. Thomas’ 26.2. First-round host St. Thomas (26-1) is ranked second nationally by D3hoops.com and will face Ripon (19-8) at 8 p.m. Friday at Schoenecker Arena. The first-round winners meet at 7 p.m. Saturday to fight for a spot in the Sweet 16.
IWU starts Maddie Merritt (16.9 ppg), Sydney Shanks (12.0), Hughes (9.3), Schneider (7.9) and Nina Anderson (6.6).
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“Everyone is really excited and very focused,” said Shanks, whose team lost in the NCAA second round last year to Trine. “We want to make it farther than we did last season. I think that’s a huge goal for us.
“We’re really excited to see a team that’s never seen our R and J (run and jump press) before. In the conference, that’s what we’re known for. I think we’re super excited to put the pressure on with that.”
Smith has devoted 70 percent of her preparation time to Wisconsin Lutheran and split the rest between St. Thomas and Ripon.
“At this point in time, everybody is good,” she said. “What I am going to be telling the girls is ‘it’s a fight for every possession on both offense and defense, and don’t let any possessions become soft.’”
St. Thomas’ only loss was to Wartburg (60-40), a team which IWU beat, 68-52. The Tommies are led by 6-2 Hannah Spaulding, who averages 17.1 points on .697 shooting. St. Thomas also relies on 5-11 Kaia Porter (13.0 ppg) and 5-8 Lucia Renikoff (12.1).
Ripon, which has won nine straight, last reached the NCAA Tourney 10 years ago. Among the Red Hawks’ losses were setbacks against Carthage and Carroll, teams that IWU defeated twice each.
Ripon is led by 6-2 Maggie Oimoen, who averages 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds while shooting .556 from the field.
Smith remains displeased IWU did not get to host this weekend, especially since teams Wesleyan defeated — Washington (Mo.) and Wartburg — are hosting.
“The most disappointing aspect of it all is that our fans are not going to get to watch us play this weekend, other than probably online,” Smith said. “We love our fans and we felt we should be able to play in front of them one more weekend.”
In the March 8-9 sectionals, one of the four entrants will host so the Titans may yet return to Shirk Center although it’s worth remembering IWU’s 2012 national championship team never played an NCAA game at home.
“I think that has also got us fired up,” Shanks said, “just knowing that we can do this no matter where we play or who we play.”