Sharks look to stay warm in NCAA championships

At this point in the basketball season, every team wants to already be hitting its stride.

It’s win or go home now for the NSU women’s basketball team, who have won seven games straight, including the Sunshine State Conference Tournament and the South Regional final of the NCAA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament.

The Sharks began the 2013-2014 season on an impressive 15-game winning streak, before losing to SSC rivals University of Tampa on Jan. 25. NSU avenged their two regular season loses to Tampa by defeating them in the South Regional Final 56-53 and advancing to their second straight Elite-8 appearance.

“That was definitely a fight to the finish game against University of Tampa, but we pulled through,” said senior criminal justice major Jessica Russi. “I was really focused for the game; we had already lost to them twice this season.”

Russi had her best game of the season against Tampa in the South Region Final, leading the team with 19 points, adding eight assists, four rebounds and three steals.

“I didn’t want it to be my last game, on our home floor,” said Russi.

Fellow senior Riki Carach, a marketing major, was crucial toward the end of the win against Tampa. Carach had the go-ahead basket with about 30 seconds left in the game.

Head Coach LeAnn Freeland was impressed with the way her team played, especially her seniors.

“They were true senior leaders throughout the entire game. Riki does a great job bringing the positive energy, making all the hustle plays and making the big shots when she needs to. Jessica was just outstanding throughout. She had tremendous confidence in her teammates and literally made big plays throughout the game,” said Freeland. “Jessica is a tremendous point guard. Everyone in our conference knows that, including Tampa. So she definitely had the right game plan in mind. I was happy to see her be more aggressive, it was something we talked about going into the season. She really rose to the occasion.”

After winning the South Regional for the second straight year, the players couldn’t contain their emotions anymore.
“Craziness. There’s really no word for it. We were just full of excitement, and lots of screaming,” said Carach. “It’s a big achievement for the program.”
Freeland said it was a great finish to a great game.

“Great time as a coach to watch your players take control of the game and they did a fantastic job listening to us as coaches, listening to one another to make sure they were in the right spot defensively,” said Freeland.

NSU will be matched up against Concordia University, St. Paul, who the Sharks played in the 2011-012 regular season, winning 76-64.

“We played them my sophomore year; we plan on watching a lot of film for the next few days,” said Carach. “It seems like they are on a run, so they are going to be fired-up.”

Freeland knows a little about the team she will be going up against in the next round, which will help her and her staff come up with a game plan.

“They are well-coached and have good size. They are very fundamental. They are not a team that like to get up and down the floor like we do, so I think that will be a strength that we have. They don’t play a lot of people. Their starting five play a majority of the minutes,” said Freeland.

Concordia-St.Paul will be a difficult next opponent for the Sharks. The Golden Bears won the Central Region defeating the number-two seeded Harding and the number-one seeded Emporia State. They seem to be one of those teams that are hitting their stride at the right time, similar to Wichita State’s men’s basketball team from last season, which made the Final Four unexpectedly. But Freeland remains hopeful.

“We have a realistic shot of making the Final Four,” she said. “We have got to focus in on each possession and detach from the outcome, so we can play our best basketball together.”

A major concern for NSU going into the next round is trying to get their health back in order. For the past few weeks, a few members of the team have been dealing with illness. That, combined with playing three games in three days, means the team is looking to get their energy and strength back to help move them further than the program has ever been before.

Freeland said, “We have been trying to get our health back. I think we will be going to Erie feeling really good. I felt we were a little tired [towards end of last game]. We had a lot of three-point looks that would normally fall but didn’t.”

The ultimate goal is in reach for NSU. Just three wins away from claiming the program’s first national title. It has been a long journey that began last fall with a simple message: #1277, representing the number of miles between NSU and Erie, Penn., where the last three rounds of the tournament will take place. The NSU Athletics Department has also been involved in promoting #1277 all season long on social media.

“It was something I would text to them after each game. And now we are going. It’s going to happen,” said Freeland. “We are really enjoying more time together. It’s a really special group.”

NSU has had a great season. The team this year has really helped the program move in a positive direction, thanks to Freeland and senior players like Russi and Carach. No matter the outcome of the rest of the tournament, this team has had that certain something the entire season that makes them special and sets them apart from other years.

“Every team is very different. Last year’s team had different strengths than this year’s team. A strength of this year’s team is they have a very strong chemistry together. We play well together. We are very unselfish, always supporting each other. It’s just a real fun group to be around,” said Freeland.

Russi said the team has accomplished what they’ve set forth so far.

“Definitely been my favorite season. Winning the conference tournament was big. It’s the hardest thing because you play teams so many times [during the season],” said Russi.

The Sharks Elite-8 game will take place March 25 at 2:30 p.m. in the Erie Insurance Arena at Gannon University.

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