Despite knowing they would see and hear their named called Monday night during the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Selection Show, there was still plenty of anxious moments for the Western Illinois women’s basketball team.
While it did take a little bit of time, the Leathernecks did indeed learn their fate, drawing a No. 14 seed to play at No. 3 seed Florida State on Friday.
“I was afraid they forgot about us,” WIU coach JD Gravina said. “You look at all sorts of matchups and the teams that were still in, I thought maybe we slipped a little lower than we wanted, but it was pretty nerve-wracking and exciting.
“My heart was beating 1000 miles a minute, I thought I might have to leave, but seeing our name pop up on the selection show almost moved me to tears. I’ve sat on my couch and watched that selection show and always dreamt of the day when maybe we’d get there.”
Players shared Gravina’s anxiety and nervousness, not sure when their name would get called, but relieved when they heard it.
“We all knew it was going to happen, but to see it up there and have it be real, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” WIU senior Mallory Boyle said. “I’m just so proud of our team, I can’t wait to go out there, play and show everyone what we can do.”
The tournament berth is the first for the program since 1995 and while there are plenty of rookies to the NCAA Tournament experience, WIU does have one player who has been there before.
Transfer Morgan Blumer was part of Florida Gulf Coast’s NCAA Tournament team during the 2014-2015 season, but did not play much.
Now a key part of a postseason-bound Western squad, Blumer is enjoying a new way to experience a familiar feeling.
“I think this changes the NCAA Tournament experience for me 100 percent,” she said. “It think it’s crazy to be part of it and have an impact on it. It’s crazy to go back down to Florida. I did play at Florida State, so it will be fun to go back up there. It’s a completely different atmosphere.”
Throughout the week, the national experts had Western heading anywhere from Los Angeles to Miami, to Ohio State to either Louisville or Kentucky.
But as the potential destinations came and went, the team continued to slide in and out of their seats, waiting for the call.
“The nerves built and built as we started to wonder where we would end up,” Gravina said. “Every time I saw a 16 seed come up and it not be us, I was so relieved.
“I know they look so much at nonconference strength, we didn’t know we would be as good as we were but I thought we built up a solid schedule. It was something that could have held us back, but when I saw us pop up, because I didn’t know if it would ever happen, we were able to cheer and celebrate.”
It’s been a remarkable year for Western Illinois. Last season, the group had scattered for spring break, thinking the year was over before being called back to Macomb to host Southern Illinois in a Women’s Basketball Invitational contest.
This season, the Leatherneck women get to take that spring break trip but also keep playing.
“This was the best spring break I could ask for,” Boyle said. “I couldn’t ask for a better spring break than this.”