Unbeaten, veteran Bentley seeks Division II title
WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) — The four seniors and one graduate student starting for Bentley’s unbeaten women’s basketball team aren’t focusing on how far they’ve come as a group.
Not when there’s so much still to play for — the program’s first NCAA championship.
“We have some unfinished business,” said Lauren Battista, the 6-foot forward and the leading career scorer in the Division II school’s history.
The Falcons are 32-0 going into the Elite Eight. They’re 121-11 in the past four seasons. But three of those losses came in the Final Four, Elite Eight and, last year, in the round of 16 where they lost to Dowling, 53-51.
“Since that game ended there has been a tremendous focus by this group to get back to the regional championship game and then take that next step to get to the Elite Eight,” coach Barbara Stevens said. “Our team has really been on a mission.”
The Falcons have taken that next step. And if they beat Drury (Mo.) on Tuesday night in Erie, Pa., they will be back in the Final Four.
Not quite the Final Four that led to the national bracketology obsession.
But for this experienced team at the 4,200-student business university 10 miles west of Boston, reaching it — and going beyond — are goals that keep them from looking back at what they’ve already accomplished.
“We all know what’s at stake and what’s right in front of us and we don’t want anything to distract us from that goal,” Battista said. “Hopefully, when it’s all over, it ends with our ultimate goal, a national championship, and then we’ll be able to reflect back and think about everything we’ve done in our four years.
“I know next week my career is over, no matter what. So I think we’re just going to play our hearts out, play the same type of basketball we’ve been playing the last 32 games and hope for the best.”
They’ve won 31 of those games by double figures, the last an 83-62 victory over LIU Post that got them to the Elite Eight. They’ve out-rebounded all 32 opponents.
“We all came to Bentley with the intentions of winning a national championship because of the storied legacy of the program and because they haven’t won one,” point guard Christiana Bakolas said. “What we’ve done is obviously a great accomplishment (but) I don’t think we’ll consider it a success unless we win our last game in a Bentley uniform.”
Winning the next one will be a challenge.
Drury (27-3) advanced by beating Wayne State 99-63. The Lady Panthers’ leading scorer is 6-foot-7 Amber Dvorak. Bentley’s tallest player is 6-2.
“We have not been able to get to that national championship game, but if there was a group that I think was capable, it’s this group,” said Stevens, whose 914 wins make her one of six women’s coaches in any division with at least 900. “However, in Division II you do not get a chance to see the great teams in other parts of the country, so I don’t know where we measure up.”
Bentley is in the Elite Eight for the 13th time in 26 years. But it reached the title game just once, losing in 1990 to Delta State after winning 23 straight games.
“We all understand that you don’t get too many of these opportunities,” Stevens said.
The Falcons have versatility and depth. Three players have at least 1,400 career points. Many have come from Bakolas’ passes.
“I consider myself the luckiest point guard in the country because we’ve gotten so used to playing with each other,” she said. Battista “has caught so many of my crazy passes that never should have been caught by a human being. She’s saved me from so many turnovers over the years.”
Battista, Jacqui Brugliera and graduate student Courtney Finn have started together since 2010-11. Bakolas joined them the next season and Caleigh Crowell is in her first full season as a starter.
“We are comfortable with each other. We know our strengths and our weaknesses,” Battista said. “That’s a big advantage going into this tournament.”
And when it’s over?
“If it should be that we don’t have that opportunity to play for a national championship, I will not deem this year a failure by any means. They’ve accomplished so much already,” Stevens said. “I would never, ever feel a sense of disappointment with anything that happens with this team.