Bulldogs dust off their dancing shoes
DES MOINES — On Monday in the club room at the Knapp Center, the Drake women’s basketball team anxiously waited to find out who it would face in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
From the moment the selection show started, there was a dense tension hanging in the air. Some of the Bulldogs played with coach Jennie Baranczyk’s children, some of them pet Griff, the Drake bulldog, and some of them just nervously watched the screen as each second slowly ticked by.
Then, all of a sudden, the team’s logo and name popped up on the line as the announcers said “and playing in the 4-13 match will be Texas A&M and the Bulldogs of Drake,” and for a split second it was almost as if the team hadn’t heard its name called.
It didn’t take long for the women to realize what they had all seen, and junior Becca Jonas was the first Bulldog out of her seat as the team all let out a wild, elated yell at learning their fate.
“It’s amazing how even though you know you’ve made it that you can still be so nervous, but it was a lot of excitement finding out where we are going to be,” sophomore Sarah Rhine said. “We are ready to go, ready to get started and practice and ready for the game.”
“Oh my gosh, I was just so nervous,” junior Sammie Bachrodt said, a permanent smile plastered across her face. “I don’t know why, I just had no idea where we were going to be at and I am just happy to play. I am so happy to be here, happy to play, and it was amazing to see our name come up.”
As the players said, they knew they were in the tournament because of the way they played this season. Drake finished undefeated in Missouri Valley Conference play for a second-straight year, and it won the MVC tournament also for a second-straight year, leading to its second-straight appearance in the Dance and the 12th overall showing in the tournament.
Even knowing all of that, Baranczyk said selection day is still thoroughly exciting.
“I can tell you it’s just an unbelievable feeling when your name comes up, it just is awesome,” she said. “We are really excited, obviously with the automatic bid by winning the tournament you know you are going to be there but there is really nothing better when there is a selection show and your name comes up.”
That elation and pure excitement will quickly turn into determination and focus, as the Bulldogs don’t want a repeat of last year, where they were bumped out of the first round by Kansas State.
Drake enters the 2018 tournament as a 13 seed in the Spokane region, where they will take on Texas A&M in the opening round.
Given this will be the first ever meeting between the Bulldogs and Aggies, Baranczyk said she isn’t exactly familiar with what they do but she does have an inkling of what to expect.
“I don’t know enough about them yet, I know they are always very well coached and they are a very good team but I also know we have a little left in us too and we’ve got to continue to focus on being better,” Baranczyk said. “I am really excited to be able to do it a second year in a row because we know the preparation, we understand that stuff and we’ve got to be able to step up and get better.”
Sophomore Becca Hittner will have a different role this time around than she did last season, as Texas A&M will likely focus on stopping the most recent Bulldog to be named MVC Player of the Year. The thing is, though Hittner leads the team at 15.6 points per game, she is just one of four Drake players averaging in double figures.
Hittner said she doesn’t even think of herself as the best player on the team.
“I don’t really feel that way, I think our team has a lot of depth and if you look at anybody on this team we are all scoring threats, so I think we have to use that to our advantage going down there,” she said.
That ability to have multiple girls get it done on a given night is just one of the aspects that Baranczyk said she has enjoyed about this squad.
“I love our chemistry, I love our depth, I love the way our team is playing together right now, I think that’s really fun,” she said. “I also think we have to just continue to focus on taking one percent increments and continue to get better and just bring our best self. If it’s good enough then it’s good enough and if it’s not then we are going to make sure we give our best shot.”
Last season and this season have quite a few familiar aspects for the Bulldogs. In 2017 the women finished undefeated in the MVC and won the MVC Tournament, just like in 2018. What most of the girls have said, however, is this year’s iteration of Drake women’s basketball has done a better job of learning from failure, especially considering they played a tough schedule early in the season that had them at 7-7 heading into conference play.
“Every year we learn a lot of lessons and this year we learned lots and lots of lessons in our non-conference,” Bachrodt said. “It took us a little bit to get started and it took us a little bit to get our team going, but I have never felt more confident in a team and had more belief in a team, more trust in a team than I do in this one now.”
Adding on the experience of playing tournament teams like Oregon, Iowa, Creighton and South Dakota State in the non-conference, Hittner said the experience gained last season in the tournament is an absolute plus for the Bulldogs.
“We’ve been down there and have gotten over the awe of it and now we are ready to go down there and compete,” she said. “We are going in there to win so I think we just have to take it day by day from here on out and prepare ourselves as best we can for the game.”
Drake also knows what it’s like to play a tournament game as a true road test, as it played in Manhattan, Kan., in the loss to Kansas State last season. The Aggies are currently 15-3 at home with the only home losses coming to tournament teams West Virginia, Georgia and Oregon.
“When you are playing on someone’s home floor in the NCAA Tournament, yes its the tournament and there is everything that goes with it but you also have to be prepare to go play a road game,” Baranczyk said. “We are going to be ready, we are excited, we are going to continue to be as prepared as we possibly can but there is nothing better than being in the dance.”
Drake will start its 12th NCAA Tournament on Friday at 1:30 p.m. when it takes on Texas A&M in College Station, Texas.