Monday’s NJCAA selection show came with a bit of shock.
Despite winning 20 games in a row and checking in at No. 22 in the final Division I poll of the season, the Lady Raiders were given the 24th and final seed in the national tournament.
The announcement came as a surprise to both the players and coaches, who didn’t expect to get seeded last in the field.
“Like everyone else, we were all hoping to have a little bit of a higher seed, but someone is going to be first and someone is going to be last,” Three Rivers coach Jeff Walk said. “Getting to go is a major accomplishment. You can’t win any of them if you don’t get to play any of them.
“We’re going to go out there and have the chance to win some games and see where the chips fall.”
Earning the No. 24 spot is something that essentially adds up to bulletin board material for the team. It gives the Lady Raiders a chance to take the floor and prove they should’ve been a higher seed.
“Honestly, I was kind of shocked just because we got ranked last,” sophomore guard Hailee Erickson said. “But I mean, just getting the chance to still go down to the tournament down in Texas to play is still really exciting, but this just gives us more motivation for us to go the gym and work harder every day to show them that we are more than just the 24 seed.”
Three Rivers will face No. 9 Jones in the first round at noon Monday in Lubbock, Texas. The seeding also gives Three Rivers a brutal road to the championship. Jones finished the regular season at 27-2 and won its last nine games, finishing the regular-season polls at No. 13.
Three Rivers and Jones don’t share any common opponents, so the team doesn’t know a lot about its opponent yet, but they’ll have a week to dissect film and get prepared. After that week, though, the tournament becomes a grind moving forward.
“I don’t think (preparation) will really change,” Erickson said. “I mean, it’ll be different just playing back-to-back days and not having very much time, but I think with that it’ll show how good we are whenever we adapt in such short time and figure out all the little things that the other teams do to keep winning.”
The team starts looking at back-to-backs after the first round, something that’ll test the conditioning of everyone in the field, and conditioning hasn’t been a problem for the Lady Raiders with their style of play.
“Honestly, the way we play, we don’t change a whole lot,” Walk said. “... It’s harder for other people to get ready for us because to simulate that pressure, unless you’re used to going against that type of pressure, it has an effect on people.”
All year long, finding the motivation to get up and come to play in big games has been relatively easy for the Lady Raiders. Whether it’s getting the last seed in the national tournament or going against players that have doubted their ability, the motivation has been there all season.
“It’s kind of funny that the last month, everybody has been providing motivation for us,” Walk said. “So when you’ve got external motivation driving you to your goal, that makes our motivation a lot easier because, you know, the kids are a little disappointed today, I’m not going to lie. And I can’t say I’m not disappointed either, but when people give you the motivation to come in and work your tail off every day, it don’t take much poking and prodding from (assistant coach Alex) Wiggs and myself.”
Should Three Rivers get past Jones in the opening round, No. 8 New Mexico will face the winner at 4 p.m. the next day. New Mexico received an at-large bid after losing to No. 5 Odessa in the Region V championship by four points.
A third top-10 team could be waiting for them in the third round if the time comes, and it’d be a familiar face. No. 1 Wabash Valley is in the same quadrant as the Lady Raiders with a bye into the second round. The Warriors enter the tournament with a 31-0 record and previously defeated the Lady Raiders 88-67 on Nov. 10 at Three Rivers.
The low seeding could’ve also been a result of four top-10 teams losing their region and district playoffs. At that point, teams that were ranked lower begin to move up, while the top teams still receive at-large bids, creating a logjam of teams in the top spots. Nonetheless, Three Rivers now has a week to prepare for Jones in its first game of the tournament.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic