For the third year in a row, Nova Southeastern University’s women’s basketball team has advanced to the Final 8, which will be held this year in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The Sharks (27-5), ranked 18th in the nation in Division II, advanced to the quarterfinals in 2013 and the semifinals in 2014.
On Tuesday, they will play No. 14 California (Pa.), which has a 29-4 record and is 6-1 against Top 20 teams.
However, while NSU has played eight straight games away from home – winning all eight – California played all three of its NCAA Tournament Atlantic Region games at home. California needed overtime in its most recent game to advance to Sioux Falls.
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“I know [California forces] a lot of turnovers and gets to the foul line,” said NSU coach LeAnn Freeland, whose team is 4-2 against ranked opponents. “But I’m really proud of my group. We have amazing team chemistry.”
Both teams have overcome adversity to get this far, although nothing compares to what California has endured.
California senior forward Shanice Clark, 21, died in January because of a blood-cell disorder. During the regionals, her teammates all wore T-shirts that had “Clark” on the back and her No. 44.
The Sharks’ adversity has been injury-related. They lost leading scorer Taylor Buie (15.1 points) to a knee injury before the season started. Then, six weeks ago, they lost starting forward Kayla Wright to a foot injury.
It is possible that Wright, the team’s third-leading scorer, returns for Tuesday’s game.
NSU also graduated three of their top six scorers from last season.
That left the Sharks with two main players to build around – 5-10 senior forward Jasmine Wilkins, who leads the team with a 14.4 scoring average, and 5-8 senior guard Danielle Robinson, who is second in scoring (13.5).
Robinson, from South Broward High, was named first-team All-Sunshine State Conference, and Wilkins (Hialeah) was the league’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
“Me being a senior is not in my head,” Wilkins said of her final chance to win a national title. “I just bust my butt every game.”
In addition to Wilkins and Robinson, junior guards Monaye Merritt and Jessica Valley were named to the league’s All-Newcomer Team.
Merritt, a transfer from Temple, averages 9.5 points and leads the team in assists (4.2). Valley, a transfer from Indiana State, averages 8.4 points and leads the team in rebounds (6.8).
The good news for the Sharks is that they have the easier half of the bracket at nationals. If they get past California, they would face No. 23 New Haven or unranked Cal Baptist on Wednesday.
In Friday’s final, it would be one of four top 10 teams: No. 2 Limestone (30-1), No. 4 Lewis (28-2), No. 5 West Texas A&M (27-2) or No. 9 Emporia State (25-4).
Either way, Robinson said the Sharks do not lack for confidence.
“It’s a blessing being on this amazing team,” she said. “We have so much fun, and winning comes along with that.”