It was a little after 7:45 p.m. local time in Bloomington, Ill. when five Yellowjacket women’s basketball players stepped onto the court.

The crowd, over 1,500 strong and a sea of orange and flecks of blue and yellow, was ready. The referee took the ball off the officials table, turning it in his hands. He walked to the center of the court, looking both ways to make sure the teams were set. The whistle blew. The ball was tossed up. And we were underway.

This would be a moment junior Melissa Alwardt and her team would relish an opportunity to stake their claim.

‘I wanted to prove for my team that we deserved to be there, and I think we did prove our point,” the All-American starting guard said.

Last Friday’s NCAA tournament Final Four game was more than just the culmination of another successful season for Alwardt and the Yellowjackets. Their opponent, Hope College, was big, deep and boasted the Division III player of the year, junior center Carrie Snikkers. And what were the ‘Jackets? Well, no one really expected them to be there in the first place.

So when those five players took the court at the Illinois Wesleyan gym on Friday night, the game quickly became more than just a 40-minute rollercoaster ride for the Yellowjackets.
It was a statement of defiance.

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In November of 2008, the women’s basketball team seemed poised to break through into the championship game of the NCAA tournament. All the pieces were in place: presence in the post in then-seniors Julie Marriott and Alex Porter; a budding shooting guard fresh off an impressive freshman season in Alwardt; and, perhaps most critically, leadership, leadership, leadership.

In an interview before the season started, Marriott asserted confidently what was clearly the prevailing opinion in the locker room: ‘This was our year.”

But an abrupt 58-70 loss to The College of New Jersey in the Sweet 16 of that season meant it was not to be and the five seniors that year would end their careers at UR having never made it past that round in the tournament.

When November rolled around this past year, uncertainty loomed over the squad.
‘At the beginning of the season, to be honest with you, I was probably hoping to win 15 or 16 games,” head coach Jim Scheible said. ‘But I did think that we could be good, it’s just that we lost so much. … We were so untested.”

Scheible’s players, as well, were unsure of where they stood. ‘I definitely did not expect us to go this far considering we lost a lot of seniors last year,” sophomore center Jodie Luther said. ‘I knew that we were young, and I thought we could do well, probably just not this well.”

Some may call it inexperience. Others would refer to it as a lack of poise, composure and good decision-making. Whatever it was, it first reared its ugly head on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The ‘Jackets were taking on Nazareth College. And they went cold.
UR shot just 24 percent from the field against the Golden Flyers, only netting a single 3-pointer in 14 attempts. Alwardt, the team’s leading scorer, hit just two of 10 from the floor and only got to the free-throw line twice. Point guard Jess Mastronardi, the team’s lone starting senior, had just two points and no assists.

It was the first time the ‘Jackets had lost to Nazareth in 10 years.

Less than two weeks later, UR dropped a game to Emory University. And for the older players, they recognized the point they had come to the ‘make it or break it” moment. ‘After losing to Naz and Emory we thought it could be a very long season,” Alwardt said.

But something clicked after the ‘Jackets returned from winter break. UR won two-straight conference games and scorched the competition at the Wendy’s College Classic. It appeared that the Yellowjackets had regained their swagger or maybe just found it for the first time.

‘We knew we had some special players, it was just a matter of learning to work together within Coach Scheible’s system and that took some time,” junior starting guard Caroline Bernal-Silva said. ‘We came to practice every day ready to work hard and with each practice, and each game we learned something new and it paid off in the end. We learned how to play together, take care of the ball and win games.”

On Jan. 29, the women hosted Washington University in St. Louis. The Bears were ranked No. 3 in the country entering the contest. UR was unranked, as it would be virtually all of the season. But on that Friday night, the disparity in the rankings didn’t show. As the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read 63-51. The WashU faithful in the stands were dead silent. The UR women had just put together a game that quite clearly told their UAA opponent: Yes, we can be that good now get back on your bus and go home.

‘I think that was when everyone finally realized we could hang with anyone in the country on any night,” Mastronardi said.

WashU would go on to win it all in the NCAA tournament, beating Hope in the finals. The Yellowjackets were the last team they lost to.

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After this season, you can at least be sure of one thing you really want Melissa Alwardt on your team.

‘She literally won a couple games for us early by making big plays at the end of games,” Scheible said. ‘And she was able to close games for us all year. … We felt that if we were in close games, if we could get it to Melissa, we would be in good shape.”

Perhaps it was the experience and her ability to perform on any stage. This was, after all, the same player who, as a freshman, hit her season-high in points (23) in the playoffs. But Alwardt also had that swagger, that confidence from the beginning.

Only this year, she also had to make adjustments. As the season went on, Alwardt became less of a pure scorer. That place was taken over by UR’s post players, namely Luther, sophomore forward Kate Agan and, by the end of the year, freshman center Amy Woods. Patience, distribution and, most importantly, trust became essential not just for Alwardt, but each of the upperclassmen and even Scheible.

‘The key to our success in the postseason was our closeness,” Alwardt said. ‘This transferred into trusting each other on the court even when we are down. We also have a huge will to win.”

By the end of the year, though, Alwardt led the team in assists, steals, minutes, free-throw percentage and rebounds, in addition to points.

But you don’t win a game with one player; you win it with a team. And while Mastronardi, Bernal-Silva and Alwardt anchored the team on the court, the majority of UR’s players were young, inexperienced. Down the stretch, though, that almost seemed irrelevant.

‘Sometimes you have good chemistry, sometimes you have bad chemistry, sometimes you have great chemistry,” Scheible said. ‘I think this was one of those times when we had great chemistry. Even though we were young in a lot of spots, the players really enjoyed playing with one another and working hard for one another, and I think that made a big difference.”

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Nobody thought the ‘Jackets would win on Friday night. Most didn’t even think they would make it out of the first round. The CBS Network announcers calling the game put it this way, after both teams came out shooting well in the first 10 minutes: ‘Looks like Rochester might get to 70 after all. Hope will just get to 71.”

‘Nobody had high expectations for us,” Scheible said. ‘I mean, here we were, the unranked team in the tournament, and you had the No. 1, 4, 6 teams [as the other three spots].”

Maybe it was because Ohio had just pulled off the upset win over the Big East powerhouse Hoyas. Or maybe it was the setup of the Final Four matchup, where UR, an out-of-nowhere team that somehow managed to pull off big-time upsets again and again, were set to play the tough, talented and experienced Hope Dutchwomen. Or maybe you thought UR could win when Alwardt shot four of five from behind the arc in the first half.

It was as if Cinderella wa

s already there, dressed for the ball and tapping her foot expectedly.

And when something is going right, you just don’t want to believe it can end. But in a 40-minute span dictated by tough post play by the Dutchwomen and gutsy efforts from both teams, the women saw their improbable run come to an end on Friday night as they lost to Hope 63-76 en route to a fourth-place finish overall.

‘When it comes to the Final Four, the game is really up for grabs,” Bernal-Silva explained. ‘It’s just whether a team can make the push at the end and come out on top, and that night it happened to be Hope.”

But for the team that entered the season with more question marks than certainties, it would be hard to argue that this season didn’t actually end in victory after all.

Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.



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