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Muhlenberg College

Friday, February 27, 2009

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Championship Preview
Women’s basketball shoots for fifth title

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Unfortunately, two members of the winningest women’s basketball class in Muhlenberg history have been reduced to mostly watching their team this season.

But what a season they’ve observed.

Seniors Bethany Enterline and Kaitlin Strumph, forced to the sidelines with injuries, will hope to see more outstanding play from their teammates when the Mules host the Centennial Conference playoffs this weekend. Muhlenberg (22-3) faces fourth-seeded McDaniel, a 59-58 first-round winner against Dickinson, tomorrow at 1:00, followed by a matchup between second-seeded Franklin & Marshall and third-seeded Johns Hopkins. The winners meet Sunday for the league championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Muhlenberg, the defending champion, and Johns Hopkins are tied for
Alexis Bates
Junior Alexis Bates scored a season-high 16 points, including the game-winning free throws with 1.7 seconds left, in the first McDaniel game.
the CC lead with four titles, and both will be trying to win “one for the thumb.”

The Mules, ranked third in the Mid-Atlantic Region by the NCAA and 15th in Division III by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, won the regular-season title with an unprecedented perfect 18-0 record.

“Being on the sideline, I’ve really come to appreciate the little things that many of our players do on the court,” said Strumph, who suffered a career-ending injury in the preseason. “I’ve noticed how much extra effort they always put it to either make a good box out or hustle after a loose ball.”

Enterline, whose chronic injury limits her playing time to a minute or two per game, has noticed the team’s quality passes from her vantage point. “At times I think my teammates are about to turn over the ball because I don’t think there is any way a pass is getting through the defense,” she said. “Then they prove me wrong and the pass turns into an assist. If I was on the court I would be too in the moment to realize how crazy the pass was to really be impressed by it.”

Precise passing will be important against the Green Terror (15-11), which is second in the CC in turnover margin. Muhlenberg is eighth in Division III in assist-to-turnover ratio but turned the ball over a season-high 21 times in a 77-76 overtime win at McDaniel in early January. The Mules won more handily (77-55) at home, but still committed 19 turnovers.

“It’s never easy to beat a team three times, and I know it will be a challenge to play them again,” commented Strumph. “We’ve had some pretty exciting games against McDaniel in my four years. They are always a really physical team, and it’s a grind right until the end of the game.”

The two teams have developed a strong postseason rivalry over the last seven years. In both 2002 and 2003, McDaniel came to Muhlenberg and won a CC semifinal game, with the former loss ending the Mules’ most successful season at the time with a 21-4 record.

The Green Terror knocked Muhlenberg out of the playoffs again in 2004, but in 2006 the Mules eked out a one-point overtime win en route to winning the CC title. Overall, Muhlenberg leads the series 16-13.

“We know they can beat us on any given day, especially if we lose our focus,” said Enterline. “We have to come ready to play.”

Muhlenberg got a taste of what the postseason might be like in its last three games, all on the road and two against playoff contenders. The Mules had a 22-point lead cut to six before beating Johns Hopkins by nine, then won by two and three at Dickinson and Ursinus, respectively.

“Although we’ve definitely had a target on our backs all year, I think teams are really coming out and giving it all they have against us now,” said Strumph. “I think it also shows that the other teams have improved a lot over the season, and this weekend will definitely be a challenge.”

Recent history is not on the Mules’ side. Since Muhlenberg won the CC title as the host in 2006, the last two top seeds have lost in the semifinals. The Mules are 11-1 at home, however, and won their nine home CC games by an average of 17.2 points.

“Our talent has carried us a long way, but our ability to have fun with the game allowed us to go undefeated in the conference,” said Enterline. “We do not put pressure on ourselves; we just go out every day and play the game we love. Being able to have fun throughout the season is very important because our season is so long.”

Muhlenberg hopes to have more fun – and make its season even longer – this weekend.

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