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NCAA women’s tournament: Navy opens against DePaul

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Before they left for University Park, Pa., to play in their first NCAA tournament, the Navy women’s basketball players had plenty of free time. School was on spring break, and other than practice, there wasn’t much to do.

So they went out in Annapolis, and everywhere they went someone recognized them and wished them luck.

“We were talking about it,” senior center Cassie Consedine said. “Megan Matheny said, ‘Man, that meant a lot.’ For somebody to see you — you can see somebody and not say anything — but for them to make the gesture and actually say something really means a lot to us. These people, this community behind us, it just means a lot to us.”

No. 14 seed Navy, which plays third-seeded DePaul on Saturday in the first round, has gained quite a following — a far cry from Consedine’s freshman season when few people paid attention to the Midshipmen.

Back then, Navy wasn’t a good team. The Midshipmen won only seven games and lost 23.

“I came here thinking this was a good team, they had good players, and we could do something,” senior guard Angela Myers said. “Then I got here and we did so poorly. It was like, wow, what’s going on?”

When Myers and Consedine arrived, no one seemed to care whether Navy won or lost. The Midshipmen had had one winning season in their previous eight. They hadn’t finished better than fourth in the Patriot League and had won only once in the league tournament.

“When Cassie and I got here, it was a bad culture,” Myers said. “People were used to losing.”

Said Consedine: “Angela is the most competitive person I know. We hated losing. We would be so upset after games, like really mad. We don’t want this. We don’t want to be losing.”

Myers said the thought of leaving the team never crossed her mind, but Consedine considered walking away.

“I really think having each other helped,” Consedine said. “We were just like, ‘Come on, man, make it through this.’ We really pushed each other. It’s going to get better. Angela is really positive. She sees the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Navy changed coaches in 2008, bringing in Stefanie Pemper. She had taken Bowdoin to the Division III tournament in nine of her 10 seasons, including a national title game appearance in 2004. Pemper also had gone to the NCAA tournament three times while an assistant coach at Harvard.

Pemper wasn’t prepared for what she found at Navy. In her first team meeting, one of the players wore sunglasses and sat with her head on her arms. Another asked her how she felt about players with bad tempers.

“The cupboard wasn’t bare in terms of talent,” Pemper said. “There wasn’t confidence. There wasn’t pride. There wasn’t a sense of team.”

Fixing Navy wasn’t a matter of drawing X’s and O’s on a greaseboard. The Midshipmen needed an attitude adjustment. Pemper started by giving them articles and books to read.

“I just always feel that it is better than me talking and saying the same thing,” Pemper said. “If you keep reading these things, then okay, it’s not just my coach’s wacky idea. . . . They’re smart women, so I think they’ve picked up on it well.”

Besides the required readings, Pemper brought accountability and responsibility to team.

“Everything was different,” Consedine said. “Our workouts were different. We were valuing different things. With Coach Pemper, we get our locker room taken away. We get our sweatshirts taken away. You don’t get to use that stuff if you don’t respect it enough to take care of it. That seems so simple but we didn’t value that before.”

Since Pemper’s arrival, Navy has posted three consecutive winning seasons. This season, the Midshipmen tied for first place in the Patriot League, sharing the title with Lehigh and American. They went on to win their first Patriot League tournament, earning them their first NCAA tournament bid. And Pemper was named the league’s coach of the year.

“This is pretty much every college basketball player’s dream,” Myers said. “It means a lot to us, especially [since] as freshmen we were horrible. All of a sudden our last year here, we made it to the NCAA tournament.”

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