Cougars have great chance to prosper on national stage
By Anthony Nasella
For the past 12 years St. Xavier University women’s basketball coach Bob Hallberg has packed plenty of shirts and sport coats for his trips to the NAIA national tournament.
The hope was there’d be a need for all of them because of an extended Cougars stay. So far, though, some clothing has always remained unused.
Hallberg and SXU took another journey to Iowa this past Monday, this time with the nation’s No. 4 ranking in NAIA Division II and a better-than-ever shot at striking gold. One of four top seeds in the 32-team tourney field, the Cougars (29-3) open tonight at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City when they take on No. 8 seed Oregon Tech.
The Bobcats, who are making their third national appearance, did not crack the top 25.
“We’re hoping that we can perform the way we’re capable of performing and the way we’ve played all season long,” Hallberg said. “We have to play one game at a time and we’ll be fine as long as we remember those basics.”
SXU has performed at a high level the entire season. The Cougars pieced together a school-record 18-game win streak that stretched from Dec. 20-Feb. 28, during which they topped the century mark in scoring seven times and vanquished their opponents by an average of 30 points. SXU’s only defeats came against No. 1-ranked Morningside, No. 3 Concordia and No. 5 Cardinal Stritch.
“There were moments in that winning streak where it didn’t seem real at all,” said senior forward Morgan Stuut, the Cougars’ career scoring leader. “It was so crazy -- I was wondering at [certain] moments if we were playing college basketball. That’s never happened [to us] before and teams we play know about it. They know what we’re capable of and that’s a good thing.
“I like [having] the target on us. We might not win like that at nationals, [but] we’re going to come out firing. We strike fear in people’s minds and we need to keep that a reality.”
Stuut is SXU’s unquestioned leader with her per-game averages of 16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists, but by no means is she a one-woman gang for the Cougars. Part of the fear factor Stuut referenced is rooted in SXU’s depth.
Both Stuut and fellow senior Suzie Broski have become more effective this year because other players have also drawn opponents’ attention. The emergence of freshman guard Kara Krolicki in particular has prevented foes from double-teaming Stuut and Broski. Krolicki is averaging nearly 16 points per contest while shooting 41 percent from 3-point territory.
“I’ve never had a better group of girls to play with,” Stuut said. “They’re a special group and I can’t wait to experience the national tournament with them.”
Krolicki credits her veteran teammates with setting the proper tone.
“Morgan and Suzie are great captains and they’re always encouraging us,” Krolicki said. “They keep us focused in practice and especially in games. You can see commitment on the court before and after practices. It’s easy to get comfortable with teammates like that.
“We all jell together and I really think that’s why we’ve played so well this season. We have so many threats on the floor it’s really hard to single one player out and shut one down [because] there will always be another player ready to step up.”
Krolicki has frequently filled that role, but she shares whatever success she’s enjoyed with her teammates, saying they have “set me up for a lot of my scoring. My teammates have had a big impact on me.”
Whatever the reason, Broski is thrilled some of the responsibilities are being disbursed.
“There’s definitely been a lot less pressure on Morgan and me,” said Broski, who is averaging 11.5 points per game and provides SXU with another proven 3-point threat. “Kara is an awesome shooter and a great addition to this team. She’s taken a load off our backs.
“I think, honestly, of the four years that I’ve been here this has been the most fun. Each game someone else steps up. That’s been the really cool thing about it -- you know your teammates are going to pick you up if you’re having an off day.”
Broski said she’s “excited for nationals” and Krolicki echoed that sentiment, although the latter admitted it’s taken a while for reality to set in.
“The NAIA Tournament is still kind of surreal,” Krolicki said. “My teammates have talked about being down there in previous years. We’ve had a few losses, but you just have to look past those and learn from them. We’re very excited about the challenge that awaits us.”
The tournament is divided into four eight-team brackets with squads seeded 1-8 based on the final NAIA top-25 poll. With a victory tonight the Cougars move on to play the College of the Ozarks-Siena Heights winner on Friday. From there the Cougars could possibly face No. 2 seed Indiana Wesleyan in Saturday’s quarterfinals and perhaps earn a rematch with Morningside in one of Monday’s semifinals.
SXU’s chance to make a deep run seems as strong as ever, but Hallberg sounded a cautionary note.
“It doesn’t even make a difference that we went 29-3,” he said. “We’re all going to be in the same situation -- everybody is going into the tournament with a 0-0 record. One win and you go to the next round; one loss you go home. We have to go down there as if we’re starting a brand-new season.
“We need to come out and play [well] tonight so we can move on to the next round. This is not like the NCAA tournament, however. There’s not a lock for a champion and some teams are not seeded right, but we haven’t been upset this season so that puts us in a favorable position.”
It has indeed been a great year, but the Cougars can make it even better by forcing Hallberg to dig into his luggage.
“It would be nice to use every shirt I’m bringing down,” he said. “[Otherwise] that means I’m just lugging shirts around.”