On a Friday night in early February last year, the Catholic University women’s basketball team overcame a nine-point halftime deficit for a 70-64 win against Moravian in Bethlehem, Pa.
It would be just one of 19 victories for the Cardinals, but none turned out to be as meaningful for a program that these days is in the midst of an unprecedented run.
Catholic not only dispatched the reigning Landmark Conference champion but also won for the first time at Johnston Hall, reinforcing Coach Matt Donohue’s thinking that perhaps the Cardinals were on the verge of tilting the balance of power.
A little more than a year later, Donohue and his players recalled that triumph as the prelude to the Cardinals’ first conference championship and first NCAA Division III tournament appearance this season, when Catholic (22-5) established a school record for wins.
“We just felt like we were close,” said Donohue, who’s in his fourth season. “I think that light-bulb moment was really the beginning of February last year up at Moravian when we figured out a way to beat a team we’d just never beaten before.”
Catholic won four straight road games to close this season, the last two in the Landmark Conference tournament, to secure a trip to Alliance, Ohio, where it plays Muhlenberg (22-5) on Friday night in the first round of the Division III tournament.
The Division III tournament committee doesn’t reveal the seeds in its 64-team field, but Catholic is a presumptive No. 3 at its first-round site. Such formalities, though, are but an afterthought for the Cardinals, who relish their standing as a long shot navigating uncharted territory.
“It’s pretty much amazing,” Catholic junior forward Katarina Owunna said following practice earlier this week at DuFour Center. “I knew that we had the potential to make it this far, but everyone else was doubting us, and it was really nice just to prove everyone wrong.”
In the preseason, the Cardinals were picked to finish third in the conference but supplanted Juniata for conference supremacy. Catholic had lost twice to Juniata during the regular season before a 79-69 victory in the Landmark tournament championship game in Huntingdon, Pa., catapulted the Cardinals to the top.
“We definitely kind of assumed we would win, honestly,” sophomore guard Emily Grabiak said. “After losing to them two times, we really wanted that.”
Owunna had 22 points on 10-for-14 shooting and added a team-high 11 rebounds, and junior guard Jill Woerner, who averages a team-high 13.2 points, scored a game-high 23 with seven rebounds and four assists. Grabiak chipped in with 15 points and eight assists with only two turnovers in 38 minutes.
That group in large part contributed to Catholic shooting 51 percent, limiting Juniata to 35 percent shooting and outrebounding the Eagles, 45-36. In two losses to Juniata, the Cardinals finished at a combined deficit of six rebounds.
Catholic has featured plenty of rebounding and defense all season. It leads the Landmark Conference in rebounding margin (plus-8.6) and field goal percentage defense (.312), and no opponent has shot better than 35 percent against the Cardinals over the last six games.
Catholic has won 11 of 12 entering the NCAA tournament, and it has beaten teams by an average of nearly 16 points during its four-game winning streak. The Cardinals are second overall in the Landmark in margin of victory (plus-12.9).
“Hopefully this will become a tradition for our school, to make it to the NCAA tournament every year,” Woerner said.