A first-round loss in the GNAC tournament could have ended the season for UAA's women's basketball team.
Going up against the West Region's top seed in their first game could be discouraging for the Seawolves in their bid to win an NCAA Division II title.
Eighth-seeded UAA (19-8) opens Friday against West Region tournament host Cal Poly Pomona (22-6), the No. 1 seed.
After his team's early exit from the GNAC tournament a week ago, coach Ryan McCarthy gave his squad the "we had a good season" speech. UAA, which had been ranked No. 5 in the West Region, thought the 58-48 loss to Saint Martin's would prevent it from being one of eight teams in the region tournament.
Four days later, the Seawolves were recipients of good news. They would be playing in their 13th NCAA tournament in program history. Having gone through end-of-the-season emotions benefits UAA, McCarthy said.
"We've already got the hard part over with," he said via cellphone. "We can play without fear."
Road wins have been scarce for visitors at Kellogg Gymnasium, where Pomona is 12-2. McCarthy said the key to a first-round upset is simple: rebound and defend to UAA's potential.
"We need to play hard and play smart," he said.
Shooting well is essential, McCarthy said. That's something UAA failed to do in the conference tournament when the Seawolves shot a season-low 26.1 percent from the field.
The team's offense will stem from a strong defensive effort, senior Kylie Burns said.
"Defense is going to have to be a priority," she said.
The same goes for rebounding, Burns said, as gaining possession comes before any offensive play.
"Being relentless on the boards and pursuing the ball" is crucial, she said.
The NCAA tourney is nothing new for Burns, the team's lone four-year player. This marks her third appearance. That experience benefits a young Seawolves team where underclassmen hold seven of 12 roster spots.
"She'll be a good leader for these younger players who haven't been here before," McCarthy said.
Junior Alli Madison also has NCAA tournament experience, having played in 2012 when UAA reached the Elite Eight. Both are key players for the Seawolves. Madison is the team's leading scorer with 12.9 points per game and has reached double figures in 19 of 26 games this season. Burns averages 12.2 points and just under seven rebounds per game.
UAA and Pomona have only faced off five times since 1988; the Broncos own a 4-1 record. McCarthy is excited about the challenge. Facing unfamiliar foes is what makes the NCAA tournament special, he said.
UAA would meet another nonconference team in Saturday's semifinal should it beat Pomona. UAA is one of four GNAC teams in the tournament including Montana State Billings, Simon Fraser and Western Washington. Winners of Monday's championship earn a berth to the March 25-28 Elite Eight in Erie, Penn.
UAA is 16-12 all-time in NCAA tournament games and has made the tournament seven of the past eight seasons. UAA failed to qualify last year after having made six straight appearances. The team made the Final Four twice, in 2008 and 2009.
None of that matters come tip-off. UAA has to focus on itself, Burns said, not who's at the opposite side of the floor, no matter their ranking.
"The best thing about the tournament is anything can happen," she said. "We're down here to get a win."
West Region basketball tourney
At Kellogg Gymnasium, Pomona, Calif.
6:30 p.m.: UAA women vs. Cal Poly Pomona
Listen live on 93.7 KAFC
By MIKE NESPER