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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

By Bethany Bradsher

Women primed for date with WNIT

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

It’s a drumbeat that has sounded since the preseason for the Lady Pirates. The echoes hearken back to that Big Dance three years ago. The chief goal of the season is to play well enough to be included in the postseason.

When Tulane cut their Conference USA title short with a 73-64 defeat in the semifinals, the East Carolina women had to accept the tough reality that despite a 22-10 record and an explosive early season, the NCAA was not going to come calling.

But Monday night at nearly midnight, another suitor dropped a card on ECU’s silver tray. And Tuesday, after their inclusion as an at-large team in the Women's National Invitation Tournament had sunk in a little bit, the mood was all spirit and optimism.

“The tournament kind of let us down, but the WNIT pumped us back up,” said sophomore forward Chareya Smith.

Tuesday marked the Lady Pirates’ only full practice in their home gym before they leave Thursday morning for Philadelphia, where they will face the Drexel Dragons in the opening round of the WNIT on Friday night.

It makes for a whirlwind of a week, but the Lady Pirates are not complaining. There’s something about being selected as an at-large team, coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener said, that makes a team want to prove the selection committee right.

“It’s really great to be chosen,” Baldwin-Tener said. “To get an at-large bid, I think it says a lot about how far our program’s come and the respect that we’re starting to get.”

Since Drexel certainly wasn’t on ECU’s radar until the pairings were unveiled, Baldwin-Tener and her staff have been scrambling to learn anything they can about this week. The Lady Dragons are paced by senior Gabriela Marginean, who is ranked in the top 10 in the nation in scoring and became the Colonial Athletic Association’s all-time scoring leader this season with an average of 23.4 points per game.

“They play, essentially, five guards at the same time, and that can create a problem for us,” Baldwin-Tener said. “But I do think it’s going to be a tough matchup for us defensively. They run a lot of five out, a lot of screens, and they’re really smart.”

Drexel's shooting acumen has the Lady Pirates’ attention, but the home team will have its own matchup issues with ECU’s post play. Center Jean Best has 25 blocks on the season, and turned in a double-double in a second-round C-USA tourney win over Memphis with 14 points and 10 rebounds. The tallest Lady Dragon is 6-foot-2, and Best is 6-5 and playing at the top of her game.

With only one senior (walk-on forward Caitlin Thys), the Lady Pirates are setting the table for a major impression next season, and every game they play in the postseason increases national exposure and energizes recruiting efforts.

The WNIT, which just expanded to a 64-team field this year in time to embrace ECU, is the kind of event that can nudge a program up to another level.

“It’s a goal of ours to go to the postseason every year,” Baldwin-Tener. “I’m hoping now, that we’ve had an opportunity to go to postseason, that we’re just going to continue and that be the norm, instead of the exception.”

Sophomore guard Ashley Clarke, ECU's leader in both scoring and rebounding with 11.2 points and 5.2 rebounds a game, said that as the night wore on Monday, she began to wonder if another deserving ECU women’s team had been forgotten at postseason time. But then their name was called, and even late at night everything seemed brighter.

“I feel we’ve worked hard,” Clarke said. “We deserve it. It’s real exciting for me — the school’s first NIT. It’s like a whole new season.”

E-mail Bethany Bradsher

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03/17/2010 02:04 AM

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