By ANDY WOLF
The potential for a great season was evident long before it began.
The University of Findlay women’s basketball team returned a wealth of talented and experienced, yet ultimately unproven, players.
Everything came to fruition when the Oilers saw “Findlay” appear on the bracket late on selection Sunday.
“Going into the season it was obvious we were capable of good things,” senior guard Emily Molnar said. “Coming to a new conference and having mostly upperclassmen, I think we were bound for good things.”
Findlay drew the No. 7 seed, as expected, and will meet No. 2 Drury (29-2) in the opening round at 2:30 p.m. Friday at Ashland University.
On the plus side, the Oilers (22-7) won’t be facing NCAA Division II defending champion and No. 1-ranked Ashland — 31-0 and riding a 68-game winning streak — until the regional final, should they get there.
However, their opening matchup isn’t all that easier.
Drury, ranked No. 3 nationally, boasts as much tradition as Ashland.
The Panthers earned their 15th NCAA tournament appearance in the past 16 seasons and have eight Sweet 16 appearances in that span. They also reached the national title game in 2004 only to lose by three points.
The Midwest Region is about as tough as it gets.
No. 3 seed Southern Indiana (26-4) and No. 4 seed Michigan Tech (23-5) are ranked 15th and 24th, respectively. No. 5 seed Grand Valley State (25-6) just fell out of the top 25 while No. 6 Lewis was ranked for a large portion of the season.
“Our region is a bear,” UF coach Jim Wiedie said. “It’s brutal.”
Meanwhile, Findlay will be making its first tournament appearance since 2012-13 and third overall.
Getting to the Great Midwest Athletic Conference tournament was an obstacle in itself. While the Oilers fell short in the title game 81-70 to Hillsdale, still reaching the NCAA tournament is just as sweet.
“We couldn’t have planned this season the way it worked out,” Molnar said. “It worked out for the better.”
The mindset doesn’t change.
The Oilers were on the postseason bubble for the last three weeks and needed to play well enough to extend their season.
“None of us have been in the conference tournament, so it’s kind of like the same mindset going in,” junior forward Jenna Stegmaier said. “Just play for another day, and keep hoping we can win and play for the next day and get to practice the next day.”
Findlay and Drury will square off for the first time since their only meeting in the 2006-07 season.
Wiedie anticipates the Panthers’ constant defensive pressure challenging his team in ways they’ve yet to see all season.
“They get up and they press full court the whole game, and they hard deny everything in the half court,” Wiedie said.
Drury is second nationally at 26.4 turnovers forced per game, trailing only Ashland (28.5). The Panthers are also third in steals per game (14.0) with six players averaging at least one per contest.
In its three-game run to the Great Lakes Valley Conference tournament title, the Panthers scored 102 points via 97 turnovers.
“We need to have the mindset that we’re going to attack it right back at them and make their strength into a weakness,” said Molnar, UF’s backup point guard. “I’m excited for that, because I think our team can handle it well.”
For Drury, it starts with a duo of senior guards in Alice Heintzler (5-foot-7) and Heather Harman (5-9).
Heintzler is the Panthers’ leading scorer at 14.9 points per game while Harman adds 12.1 ppg and 3.9 assists per game.
Forwards Hailey Diestelkamp (5-11 sophomore) and Lucia Fernandez (6-2 junior) also average in double figures at 13.9 and 10.5 ppg, respectively.
“It’s more of a dribble-drive (offense) so there’s some similarities to what we do,” Wiedie said. “They want to put the ball on the floor. They don’t run alot of set plays. It’s a matter of can we defend that dribble penetration and be aware of where those shooters are.”
On the flip side, Drury will have its hands full stopping one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
Forward Anna Hintz (6-2) has enjoyed a breakout junior season by leading the Oilers in scoring (18.6 ppg) all season long. She’s also one of two UF players all-time to top 500 points (539) and 250 rebounds (251) in the same season.
Wiedie has especially enjoyed seeing Hintz blossom as she’s already made more shots (203) this season than attempted last season (200).
“She’s starting to understand how good she is and how good she can be,” Wiedie said.
Seniors Haley Horstman (14.2 ppg) and Lynsey Englebrecht (14.6) form a three-pronged offensive attack with Hintz.
Horstman is a career 1,000-point scorer while Englebrecht is adding to her single-season record for 3-pointers (103).
As important as his primary scoring options are, Wiedie is always looking for someone outside his “big three” to step up as a secondary scorer.
Largely, juniors Jenna Stegmaier (8.0 ppg), Christa Puthoff (6.8 ppg) Elissa Ellerbrock (6.0 ppg) have filled that role.
Stegmaier, arguably, made the biggest jump from the previous year — so much that Wiedie has a hard time taking her off the court (31.2 minutes per game).
“Hard work outside of practice and inside of practice and the leadership I bring to the court really helps everyone so I think that’s part of the reason,” Stegmaier said of the growth.
Junior guard Allie Thobe has stayed in the starting lineup since Ellerbrock suffered a high ankle sprain nine games ago.
“I was really happy with the way we played, especially down the stretch,” Wiedie said. “Hopefully we carry that over into the tournament.”
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