After breakthrough season, DWU women ready to battle in NAIA bracket

Mar. 13—MITCHELL — If you were to ask head coach Jason Christensen whether Dakota Wesleyan women's basketball could win 20 games, let alone qualify for the NAIA National Tournament, at the beginning of the year, he wouldn't have given a definitive answer.

Even now, there still wouldn't be one.

Thought to be a rebuilding season for DWU women's basketball, the Tigers instead begin their quest to the national championship on Friday, facing off against Rust College (Miss.) in the round of 64 in Dubuque, Iowa.

It's their third consecutive national tournament appearance, as DWU was one of six Great Plains Athletic Conference schools to qualify for the tournament.

"I didn't know what to expect with what we graduated last year," Christensen said. "Our kids bought in with what we needed to do, and like I said, our conference is a tough conference. If you finish in the top-six, there's a good chance you'll go to the national tournament ... it gives us an opportunity to come here and see what happens."

The Tigers finished the regular season at 20-10, their seventh 20-win season in the past 10 years, earning them one of 27 at-large bids into the tournament. DWU finished in a tie for fourth place in the GPAC standings, going 14-8 against conference opponents.

On the road against Northwestern (Iowa) in the GPAC tournament quarterfinals, DWU used strong opening and final quarters to defeat the Red Raiders 80-68 on Feb. 28. The Tigers pushed regular season champion Dordt to the brink in the semifinals before the Defenders pulled away late to win 69-59 on March 2.

Having a couple of weeks to recover and work on situational moments, the Tigers also identified an area imperative to their success in tournament competition.

"One thing we've got to get better at is getting to the free-throw line," Christensen said. "When the games are that tight, we just want to make sure that we get to the free-throw line, finishing at the rim so we have a chance to shoot some free throws."

For the season, DWU is a 76.1% free-throw shooting team, ranked inside the top-15 in the country. However, against Dordt, the Tigers were only 6-of-10 compared to the Defenders' 21-of-23 mark from the foul line.

DWU will also look to its depth to continue stepping up, as it has done following Isabel Ihnen's season-ending injury. Wagner native Emma Yost (14.7 ppg) and Menno product Morgan Edelman (9.4 ppg) have been the two constants in the Tigers' starting five, ranked first and fourth on the team in scoring.

Role players Talia Hayes and Mya Wilson have started games in Ihnen's absence, while others, like Lacey Sprakel and Maleighya Estes, have seen their minutes increase as the Tigers optimize their combinations on the floor.

Against an aggressive Rust team, coming into the matchup on a 15-game winning streak and averaging 42.9 rebounds per game, the difference of the game will be determined by how well the Tigers can disrupt the Bearcats' fast tempo and limit their chances on the glass.

"They do a good job of getting to the rim," Christensen said about the upcoming matchup. "We cannot let them get second or third chance opportunities because that's where they score a lot of their points ... having five athletic kids going at you, we'll see how we respond to that.

Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 15, in Dubuque, Iowa. The winner will either face defending national champion and host Clarke (Iowa) or College of the Ozarks (Mo.) in the Round of 32 at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 16.