The 1988-89 Detroit Pistons didn't have a single player earn All-NBA recognition, yet it won that season's NBA championship. Sounds a bit like the 2017-18 Hillsdale College women's basketball team.
The Chargers had no one voted First or Second-Team All-Great Midwest Athletic Conference. Yet, it was Hillsdale who was cutting down the nets last Saturday as the 2018 G-MAC Tournament champions. These Chargers displayed the skill, resiliency, balance and confidence necessary to win in the month of March.
Thanks to that tournament title, Hillsdale received an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II Midwest Regional Tournament. The Chargers are the #8 seed and will face tournament host and top seed Ashland University at 5:00 Friday in the regional quarterfinal. Other quarterfinal matchups include #4 Michigan Tech vs. #5 Grand Valley State, #2 Drury vs. #7 Findlay and #3 Southern Indiana vs. #6 Lewis. All regional games will be played at Ashland University's Kates Gymnasium Friday through Monday.
This is Hillsdale's fifth appearance at the NCAA Tournament in its history. The 2018 team joins past teams from 2001-02, 2002-03, 2007-08 and 2008-09 as Charger teams playing in the NCAA Tournament. Those teams were led by Hillsdale College Athletic Hall of Famers Stephanie Heid (2002, 2003) and Katie Cezat (2008, 2009). They were generational talents who could singlehandedly dominate games, and who's play still resonates with Charger fans today.
This 2017-18 Charger team has a very different style, but one that has been just as successful. Four players - Makenna Ott, Allie Dittmer, Allie Dewire and Brittany Gray - average between 12 and 14 points per game. Five other rotation players - Maddy Reed, Jaycie Burger, Julia Wacker, Bree Porter and Sydney Anderson - have all had games scoring 10 or more points this season, making the Chargers one of the most difficult teams to guard in the regional. Gray enters the tournament with a 3-point shooting percentage of .397, and she has rounded out her game to an impressive level in her junior season. She was named G-MAC Player of the Week twice, and scored 22 points in Hillsdale's tournament championship game win over Findlay last Saturday.
Ott and Dittmer were named honorable mention All-G-MAC, and their steadiness and consistency have been rocks for this Charger team. Ott has scored 10 or more points in 24 of the team's 29 games and has emerged into a complete package at both ends of the court this year. Dittmer has had her best season in 2017-18, as the senior center has become a dominant presence in the paint for the Chargers.
Making the engine go is Dewire, a super-fast point guard who creates much of Hillsdale's offense with her quickness, vision and ability to finish. Teams that press Hillsdale do so at their own peril, because Dewire can slice up most teams' pressing defense, and find her teammates for easy baskets.
if there's one skill this Hillsdale team can hang its hat on, it's rebounding. The Chargers (19-10 overall) rank second in the NCAA with a plus-12.6 rebounding margin for the season. All five starters crash the boards, and the team's collective hustle and will often finds it with enormous edges on the boards in many games. In the G-MAC quarterfinal win over Ursuline, the team had 35 rebounds in the first half. The Chargers have been outrebounded just three times all year and have outrebounded their opponents by 20 or more seven times this season. More rebounds means either more shots at the basket, or fewer shots for your opponents.
First-year head coach Matt Fritsche has done an outstanding job of creating a positive culture for the team, where their strengths are emphasized and weaknesses minimized. Rarely do you see this team play out of position or taking ill-advised shots. Under Fritsche's guidance, Hillsdale is a team that has mastered the ability to play hard and fast, but smart as well.
The Chargers' first NCAA game in nine years comes against what is undeniably one of the greatest teams to ever play Division II women's basketball. Ashland is the defending national champions and comes into regional play with a Division II record 68-game winning streak. In Ashland, Hillsdale faces the ultimate challenge. The Eagles shoot better than 51 percent from the floor as a team, average 101 points per game and have rarely been challenged by anyone this year. The Eagles needed a buzzer beater to beat Cedarville earlier in the season, and Grand Valley State took them to overtime later in the regular season. Other than that, it's been one blowout after another for Ashland, who also has the advantage of playing regional games in its home venue.
So while other players and teams received plenty of accolades, Hillsdale can already look at its season as a success, winning the G-MAC in its first year as a member of the conference. Winning three games as the lower seed in last week's conference tournament was Hillsdale's only path to NCAA regional play. That path was traversed. A new path is now in front of this team and who knows where it will lead.