There were blurry eyes and bowed heads as the William Woods University Lady Owls basketball team walked off the court nine days ago.
William Woods was just minutes removed from a 70-56 loss at rival Columbia College in the championship of the American Midwest Conference postseason tournament. It was the Lady Owls' third loss to the Lady Cougars this season.
The loss also prevented William Woods from capturing a third straight AMC tournament title in as many seasons under head coach Dan Chapla.
But Chapla knew that the Lady Owls' work wasn't close to being done.
"Losing to a team three times in a season is kind of hard to swallow, but hats off to Columbia because they're a better team than we are this year and they proved that," Chapla said. "But we won 29 games and I think we deserved to be in the national tournament, and we proved that."
"I think we knew we'd live to fight another day."
Turns out that this is that day.
No. 21 William Woods opens play tonight as a sixth seed in the NAIA Division I women's national tournament at Jackson, Tenn. The Lady Owls (29-4) and No. 9 Biola (Calif.) - a third seed - will serve as the nightcap for the tournament's first day when they square off at 9:45 at Oman Arena.
"The last two years we won the conference tournament and were regular-season champions, so we were sad about that," William Woods senior guard Jill Sutton said. "But we knew we had the chance to go to the national tournament. ... The national tournament is the big picture."
It's a third straight trip to the national tournament for the Lady Owls, who did not move past the first round in either of their two previous appearances. For some, the novelty has worn off as William Woods tries to make itself a regular fixture in the yearly field of 32 teams.
"The first year it was nerve-wracking and you're kind of looking around in awe," said Sutton, the team's fourth-leading scorer at 7.4 points per game. "Now I feel like we belong there and it was just luck, but that we're supposed to be down there with those teams."
Biola (25-6) - which is also making its third straight appearance in the national tournament - presents the initial obstacle for the Lady Owls, and saying it's a tall order might be a bit of an understatement. The Lady Eagles are fronted, literally and figuratively, by two long and productive post players.
The headliner is Jessilyn Conicelli, the reigning two-time Golden State Athletic Conference Player of the Year. The 6-foot senior forward averages 17.9 points and 12.4 rebounds.
"She gets to the free-throw line a ton, she's really athletic and I think she'll be a really good matchup for our team," Chapla said. "(Senior forward) Rachel Baker will be on her and (junior forward) Megan Aubuchon will also be on her a bit as well."
Conicelli is joined on the front line by 5-10 senior forward Jennifer French (13.6 ppg) and 6-4 senior center Christina Barclay (10.2 ppg).
That length, undoubtedly, plays a part in Biola outrebounding its opponents by nearly 10 per game.
So how does William Woods counteract that size? By throwing out a sizeable lineup of its own. Chapla plans on utilizing a longer-than-normal starting lineup for tonight's game. Baker and Aubuchon will take turns keeping tabs on Connicelli, in hopes of protecting the William Woods frontcourt.
Chapla hopes the strategy helps keep the Lady Owls, particularly the 6-0 Baker, out of foul trouble. Baker - the 2010-2011 AMC Player of the Year - was hampered with four fouls for most of the second half against Columbia College, despite netting a game-high 19 points.
"Obviously, she's a big part of the team and we need her on the floor if we're going to be successful," Chapla said. "Their kids post hard and are physical, so we don't want Rachel guarding (Conicelli)."
"She's going to have to at some point, but to start we'll switch off."
William Woods' team strategy will veer away from its normal man-to-man defense and more toward a zone of some kind. The plan not only keeps key bigs like Baker and Aubuchon out of some ticky-tacky foul situations, but it might help keep Biola off the line and away from the glass.
"We really go off our defense, so it's going to be different," Sutton said. "We're a man-to-man team in terms of concepts, so we'll need to focus more on their post rather than their three-point shooters."
That will be pertinent in William Woods getting over that opening-round hump and on to a deeper tournament run. Because after getting one win, Chapla is high on his squad's ability to play on.
"The biggest challenge for us, no doubt in my mind, is getting that first one," Chapla said. "If we get that first one, we'll get two and I really mean that."
Tonight's winner moves on to play in the second round at 4:30 p.m. Friday against either No. 2 seed Westminster (Utah) (26-6) or No. 7 Rogers State (Okla.) (23-9).