The Lady Hawks had a powerhouse team that smashed through the Patriot League regular season and dominated in a way that Lehigh women's basketball had never dominated before, to a 29-3 record and (for good measure) going undefeated against the Atlantic 10 as well. Their only three losses came to American, Vanderbilt, and Princeton, all of whom played postseason basketball this year.
This NCAA Tournament appearance was supposed to be different than last year's. But it wasn't. (more)
To be sure, it didn't help that Iowa State senior G Allison Lacey, who was held out of the Big XII tournament with pneumonia, was back at full strength going into this home game for the Lady Cyclones in Ames, Iowa. It also didn't help that freshman C Anna Prins was really starting to emerge of late as a dominating force inside, either. But what really didn't help was Lehigh's ice-cold shooting early in the game.
Right out of the gate Lehigh struggled to get their offense going in front of Iowa State's tough defense. Before the Lady Hawks even got their first shot off they had turned over the ball twice and committed a foul to go down 4-0. They'd miss seven shots en route to a 12-0 deficit until sophomore F Kristen Dalton would make her second free throw to finally put Lehigh on the board. Sophomore C Alexa Williams exited the game early with foul trouble too - which didn't help.
“It wasn’t the start that we wanted," head coach Sue Troyan said after the game. "We really emphasized to our kids the importance of the first five minutes. I think we shot 1-for-12; we didn’t get out of the gates strong and to their credit they played tremendous defense.
Lehigh's second field goal of the game would come off a beautiful move from junior G Erica Prosser, drawing a double team and finding wide-open senior G Tricia "Militia" Smith outside for a wide-open 3 pointer. It came shortly after Prosser face-planted on the court scrambling after a loose ball and had to sit out a couple of series to be looked at. The play would spark a 7-0 run to cut the deficit to 10.
But Prins and Lacey would take over after that. As scrappy as Lehigh played, Lacey showed exactly how many ways she can make you pay. In one moment, Prosser took her eye off of Lacey for a split second coming downcourt and accelerated right by her to get a lay-up. A late jumper by Prinz would make the score 35-20 at halftime.
"I think that every shot we took was contested," added Smith after the game. "It was difficult for us to get shots off, but we didn't knock down shots when we were open. It was hard to stop [Prinz]. We couldn't box her out, I couldn't move her."
And in the second half that fact really took its toll on Lehigh as Prinz and freshman F Chelsea Poppins would start to truly take over underneath. Together the twin towers combined for 39 points and 18 rebounds. Almost all of those points were in the paint - while Lehigh would only get 10 points in the paint all game.
“They’re a much bigger team than us, but I didn’t think any of us thought it would affect us that much," sophomore F Emily Gratch said. " Their best players played really well today.”
Watching the game I was very surprised that Iowa State would be so fundamentally strong and ready to play against Lehigh. In the Big XII this year most of the focus has gone on Nebraska's bid for an undefeated season and Oklahoma State's upset of the Lady Huskers, but it's sometimes easy out East to forget how powerful Iowa State is in women's basketball - and their raucous crowd of 6,738, a bigger crowd than Stabler Arena can even hold.
"We feed off the energy of their home crowd, and [their home crowd] helped them out," Smith conceded.
Lehigh ends the best season in program history at 29-4, and boast most of their team returning for next year. While this loss is tough to swallow, there's plenty to be excited about - Lehigh's home winning streak, domination of competition in the East, and back-to-back titles and NCAA tournament appearances.
“I think it’s important for us to remember that we made it with this team,” Prosser said. “We had great senior leadership and we won the regular season and tournament championship so although this isn’t how you want to feel at the end of the year, we have to remember we had a great year and this doesn’t take away from that.”
On top of that too is something else that's worth mentioning. In two other appearances in the NCAA tournament, Lehigh has gone from happy to be there (1997) to mad about a low seed (2008). In a way, Lehigh is going through part of the process of becoming an even better team in the years to come. In 1997 and 2008, there were no expectations of winning an NCAA tournament game. Looking to win one of these games - no matter how long the odds seem - is the right target to be striving for. Lehigh has gone from happy to be there to expecting NCAA tournament success.
That's important. The disappointment today can be the seeds of success for next year. The Lady Hawks now must know what it's going to take to reach their goal. It's a hard goal - but one that's achievable.