UAA's women's basketball team is just one win away from hoops heaven.
The Seawolves seized a berth in the NCAA Division II national championship game — that's the deepest journey into the postseason in program history — with Wednesday's 67-47 semifinal cruise past Grand Valley State of Michigan in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Complementing their familiar defensive shakedown tactics and remarkable depth with deadly shooting, the Seawolves (38-2) blew open the game in the second quarter, blitzing the Lakers like the snowstorm that blew through Sioux Falls on Wednesday. And UAA effectively put the game out of reach in the third quarter, when it pushed its lead to as many as 27 points.
No UAA team has ever won an NCAA championship. The men's basketball team came achingly close in 1988, when it fell in the national championship game. The Seawolves women had twice previously advanced to the national semis — they were eliminated at that juncture in 2008 and 2009.
In this postseason, the Seawolves have run various teams out of various gyms, from the Marcus Pavilion in Lacey, Washington, for the Great Northwest Athletic Conference tournament; to the Felix Event Center in Azusa, California, for the NCAA West Regional; to the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls for the Elite Eight, where they pummeled Francis Marion of South Carolina, 79-55, in the quarterfinals Tuesday, and earned Wednesday's Final Four victory.
UAA has captured its seven consecutive postseason wins by an average of 20 points. Only one game was remotely close — an 83-79 overtime victory over Cal Baptist in the regional semifinals.
"It's really surreal to me,'' UAA coach Ryan McCarthy said by phone. "I think every team in the country writes down 'national championship' as their goal.''
A year ago, being one of the last two teams left alive seemed a decent proposition. The Seawolves entered the West Regional ranked No. 1 in the nation and hosted the event on their home floor at the new, luxurious Alaska Airlines Arena.
But the Seawolves fell in a shocking, first-round upset, 64-63, in what has become known as "The Point Loma game.'' That heart-wrecking loss hardened the Seawolves, and left returning players determined they would not again endure that piercing pain again.
Earlier this month, in their first-round West Regional game, the Seawolves throttled Cal State-Dominguez Hills, 82-53, to kick-start their NCAA march.
"When we played in the West Region, it was really nice to get that first win,'' said senior Jessica Madison. "We put (Point Loma) behind us, and we wanted more.''
Wednesday, the Seawolves' stellar shooting delivered delight. UAA shot 54.5 percent from the floor (24-44), including 47.1 percent from 3-point range (8-17). The Seawolves also made 78.6 percent (11-14) of their free throws.
"It definitely helps when you see the first couple shots go through the net,'' said Madison, who led all scorers with 14 points and knocked down 3 of her 7 3-point attempts. "It boosts your confidence.''
Junior Alysha Devine drained both her 3-point attempts and shot 5 of 7 from the floor on the way to 12 points and six rebounds. Senior Jenna Buchanan made 2 of 3 from distance, scored 10 points and nabbed a game-high seven rebounds. And Third-Team All-American senior Megan Mullings added 12 points, five rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot.
The Seawolves made 8 of 12 first-quarter shots, including 3 of 5 3-pointers, and led 19-12 after one quarter.
"It creates momentum, and I think especially in tournament play, momentum is huge,'' McCarthy said. "If you get the 'mo' going early, it takes a lot of pressure off you.''
The Lakers (26-10), meanwhile were without injured point guard Brionna Barnett. They made 4 of their first 6 3-pointers — Lindsay Baker hit her first 3 from distance — to spook the Seawolves some. But the Lakers then missed 11 straight 3-pointers and finished 6 of 25 (24.0 percent) from beyond the arc, well off their average 3-point shooting of 37.4 percent.
UAA wears down most opponents with its harassing defense, as McCarthy frequently makes wholesale substitutions he equates to the hoops equivalent of hockey's line changes. Fresh-legged troops, he finds, leads for weary opponents.
"I'm really blessed we have a deep team that I can do that,'' he said.
The Seawolves held juniors Kayla Dawson and Bailey Cairnduff, the Lakers' top two scorers, who combined to average nearly 27 points per game, to four points. All four came in the second half from Dawson, who suffered first-half foul trouble that limited her to nine minutes.
UAA trailed 6-5 after the opening three minutes before it unleashed a 9-0 run. Leading 37-21 at halftime, the Seawolves opened the second half with an 8-0 run — a Devine jumper and 3-pointers from Madison and Buchanan — that furnished a 45-21 cushion. The Lakers never drew closer than an 18-point deficit.
So, UAA has seven straight wins, and the momentum and confidence derived from a season in which it has prompted considerable editing to the program's record book.
Only one more game left.
Destination: Indianapolis, and hoops heaven.
Reach Doyle Woody at email@example.com
Alaska Dispatch Publishing