Swish: Devils women sink a National Championship
The Devils gain the title of National Champions in addition to having the perfect season 33-0 (Photo by Scott Giglio)
By Catherine Krawiec
1,014 miles. That’s the distance between Madison, New Jersey and Stevens Point, Wisconsin, home of the 2014 NCAA Division III Final Four and National Championship. The University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point was the last stop on the list for the Fairleigh Dickinson University College at Florham’s women’s basketball team. With an undefeated regular season record and their second consecutive Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) Championship, FDU headed into the NCAA tournament and it seemed that nothing could stop them.
Miles, however, are not how this team measures success. They focused on their neon sneakers, killer dance moves, and an unwillingness to give up, no matter what obstacle they faced. The result was a perfect 33-0 season, capped off with a National Championship win.
However, the Devils’ run to the top was not quite as picture-perfect as their record indicates. Despite being ranked fifth in the nation, FDU was still considered the underdog of the NCAA tournament and picked to lose by sports analysts in each of their matchups.
Still, because of their high ranking, the Devils hosted both the regional and sectional rounds of the NCAA tournament. Having home court advantage, as well as the “Devils Den” fan group cheering them on provided an added bonus to the team.
Despite being picked to lose, the Devils did not let negativity stop them, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen by beating both Wells College
and Messiah College
, a fellow MAC team, in the first weekend of the tournament, March 7 and 8. They continued their streak by beating Baldwin Wallace University
on March 14. The Devils secured their spot in the Final Four by overcoming Montclair State University
, in a North Jersey bracket battle, on March 15.
On the plane heading to the Final Four, Head Coach Marc Mitchell commented on the team’s ability to prevail. “There were a lot of motivating factors for us, especially going into the Final Four. We are the only undefeated team left in the tournament and we are still considered the underdogs. We are going to prove everyone wrong.”
The Devils’ journey to the 2014 National Championship started about a year ago, after losing to Widener University in the first round of the 2013 NCAA tournament. This year, their goal was to go all the way. “It is an amazing feeling to be in the tournament again and to have made it to the Final Four,” said senior point guard Jalessa Lewis. “Last year was a learning experience for us, we knew after losing in the first round that we didn’t want that to happen again this year.”
In FDU’s first game of the weekend, on March 21, versus Tufts University
of Medford, Massachusetts, they did what they do best, a second half explosion in point scoring. They went into halftime with the score tied 22-22, and ended with a 42-39 victory (one of the lowest scoring games all season). “We always have confidence, even if we are trailing at the half, and that comes from Coach Mithchell.” Lewis said. “We pick ourselves up because we know what we have to do to win.”
Then there was only one game left between FDU, a National Championship and a perfect season. “We knew from last summer — I’d say about June — that we were going to be good. We just had to figure out if we were going to be great or not,” said Mitchell. This game tested the true greatness of the Devils.
The final matchup of the season was FDU versus Whitman College
of Walla Walla, Washington, on March 22. There was a sense of calm among the girls as they took to the court — it was clear they were in the zone. It was just another day at the office for them, finishing a job they had started so many months ago. The first half was fast paced and left the Devils down by one with twenty minutes left to play. Like so many of the other games, the Devils came out on fire, for one last dance, in the second half and battled to the end.
With just seconds to go, the Devils were up 80-72, and the clock ticked down 3… 2…. 1… National Champions. “This is what we worked so hard for all season long. I wouldn’t have wanted to go out any other way,” Lewis said.
”This is a goal that we’ve had since last summer, and all these months later, to accomplish it is amazing,” sophomore, Rachel Groom said in a post-game interview.
With their win, FDU is the first NCAA Women's Basketball Champion in New Jersey history. They are also the first team to claim a basketball championship in the state since 1996.
After taking over the program just five years ago, Mitchell is the Devils’ winningest coach of all time (90-47), as well as the 2014 Schelde Sports/Women’s DIII Coach of the Year
. “Today we kind of saw exactly what FDU Devils basketball is all about,” Mitchell said reflecting on the historic win. ”We played our game, that’s what we do. It’s all about mental toughness, resiliency and just a bunch of great young ladies.”