In this fractured fairy tale, the Abilene Christian University women’s basketball team – after two years of dominating the Southland Conference but locked out of the league tournament on a technicality – is hunkered down in the Houston suburb of Katy, Texas, this week to participate in the Southland’s annual postseason event for the first time.
At stake is something never before available to an ACU basketball team: the chance to make it to the NCAA Division I Women’s Tournament. THE tournament, the one with the brackets and the ESPN television coverage. This is the kingdom ruled by Trojans and Longhorns and Lady Vols and, for the last 15 years with an iron first, by the Huskies of mighty UConn. THAT tournament.
“It’s exciting for our program,” says head coach Julie Goodenough. “I don’t think our team understands how big of a deal this is.”
Goodenough’s teams have been a big deal in the Southland Conference since 2013 when the university rejoined this league it helped form in 1963 but left a decade later. The Wildcats finished in the top eight in all four seasons back in the Southland. And in the last two, no team in the league has been better. ACU went 33-3 in conference games and won back-to-back regular-season crowns.
But the ultimate prize was ultimately out of ACU’s reach.
Until now. The Wildcats’ seventh place finish (out of 13 teams) in the league this season has earned them one of the eight precious spots this week.
“ ‘History made’ is what we keep telling our team,” Goodenough says. “We’re the first women’s basketball team at ACU to make the Southland tournament. Even we as a staff have never been to the facility in Katy, so this is totally new for all of us.”
“Like coach always says and we keep preaching to each other,” says sophomore guard Breanna Wright, “If we’re here, we might as well go win it.”
For that to happen, these youthful Wildcats will need to play like the team that defeated the University of Idaho, a perennial NCAA Tournament participant, in November and won seven straight games in December and January. One of the wins in that streak came against ACU’s first-round opponent Thursday, the University of New Orleans.
“At this point in the year, everyone has gone through the grind,” says Goodenough, who is no stranger to tournament competition, having won four straight during her tenure at Division III Hardin-Simmons University. “Everybody is a little leg weary. So physically, everyone is in the same condition. This comes down to your mentality. Are you going to come in with reckless abandon and exhaust yourself on every play? Because that’s what it takes.”
Making the NCAA Tournament will take four wins in four days. Should they defeat New Orleans on Thursday, the Wildcats will have to knock off the University of Central Arkansas on Friday and Stephen F. Austin State University on Saturday to advance to Sunday’s tournament championship game and that chance to dance on the biggest stage in women’s college hoops.
As the carriage takes this Cinderella squad to the ball for what they hope is a four-day stay, the coach isn’t short of confidence; just things to wear.
“I’m only taking three outfits,” Goodenough says, “and buying a new one for Sunday.”