No matter what the outcome was in Lubbock, Texas, this week, the certainty was that Three Rivers women’s basketball’s season was going to be remembered for a long time.
This year’s group became the third to reach the NJCAA Tournament in the program’s 37-year history. Despite falling just short of the second round with a four-point loss against Jones County (Miss.), the team exceeded expectations from the start of the year.
The Lady Raiders started the year 7-3, losing to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, No. 1 Wabash Valley and in double overtime to Southeastern Illinois. Then, they caught fire, winning 20 games in a row on the way to an undefeated record in Region XVI, a region tournament victory and a District K championship win to clinch its first national tournament berth since 2004.
“I really did not (expect to make the national tournament). At the start of the year, they gave us a little piece of paper and they’re like, ‘Write your goal.’ We all wrote national tournament, but like, never thought it would actually happen,” sophomore Kim Shaw said. “We lost the first couple of games and we’re like, ‘uhhh,’ and then we got on a winning streak and I said, ‘OK, we might have a chance.’”
With a group of seven freshmen and three sophomores, one of the more impressive accomplishments of the season was the undefeated road record at 11-0. The record was a massive improvement over the combined 25-31 road record the team had amassed over the previous five seasons.
“At the end of the day, these kids came together as good as any group I’ve ever had,” Three Rivers coach Jeff Walk said. “They’re the first group that’s gotten me to at least a chance to win, you know. Thirty-one years of coaching, a lot of kids have played for me. These kids are the group.”
It’s easier to win on the road and endure long trips on the bus when the team enjoys each other’s company and is able to bond. That’s what this group did throughout the year.
“I think it’s a really great group of girls, and we have some amazing coaches,” Shaw said. “It was so positive when we came together as a team so well, and it’s going to be a really memorable season.”
The awareness on the court led to an assist average that was third-best in the nation to go along with five players who averaged double figures in scoring. No one on the team averaged more than 14 points per game, but the team still held a top-15 spot in the country with an average of 84 points per game.
Once region play rolled around, it became clear that Three Rivers was the real deal. It came away with two crucial wins against Mineral Area, which received votes in the NJCAA Division I poll prior to their second matchup. In both matchups, a young team showed veteran-level poise, weathering big second-half runs to win games that would go on to decide the top seed in the region tournament.
The 20 straight wins didn’t go unnoticed at the national level. The Lady Raiders earned a spot in the top 25 for the first time in three seasons, climbing as high as No. 22 in the final poll. Once it was time to punch a ticket to nationals, they had to face adversity. After upsetting Mineral Area in the semifinals of the region tournament, Moberly Area came leaped out to a 15-point lead in the championship. Three Rivers again responded with a steady approach, chipping away and tiring out the Greyhounds until it took its first lead in the second half and held on for its first region tournament victory in 15 years.
After getting handed the 24th and final seed in the national tournament, Three Rivers was out to prove it was better than that. Despite a four-point loss to end the season, the Lady Raiders proved they were deserving of more than the last seed. They took it to Jones, leading by as much as 17 points in the first half. In the end, the size difference and some red-hot shooting were the difference in the game.
“It was a great opportunity to come here in Texas and be one of the 24 teams to make it this far,” redshirt sophomore Casey Douglas said. “Just saying that we did that is a really big accomplishment for us.”
It was a season full of accomplishments for the Lady Raiders, and with most of the team set to return as sophomores, another trip to the national tournament could be on the horizon.
“(The season) means a lot. Not many people get to have seasons like we got to. Playing with these girls was a lot of fun, and I for sure will never forget this team,” sophomore Hailee Erickson said.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic