Historic March Ends for Women’s Basketball Team in Sweet 16
Comets Nearly Knock Off No. 3 George Fox University in NCAA Tourney, Complete Most Successful Season Ever
Esteban Bustillos, managing editor of The Mercury — the student newspaper at UT Dallas — wrote this article. Photos were taken by Mercury photographer Yang Xi.
Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” blasted from the beat-up speaker the women’s basketball team takes to every practice as players heaved half-court shots. The ball seemed to hit everything but net, until the moment it dropped in and the team celebrated in unison.
The miracle shot came as the Comets were putting the finishing touches on their last practice before they took on third-ranked George Fox University in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III National Tournament in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 13.
No team had come farther than UT Dallas to get where it was in the tournament, both literally and figuratively. Its record-breaking season led to an American Southwest Conference (ASC) championship, followed by two home-court victories during the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Arriving in Michigan, they were again the underdogs against an undefeated team.
“We weren’t supposed to be here,” Athletic Director Bill Petitt said. “We weren’t ranked. We barely got into the polls at the end of the year. I promise you the three teams that are here do not think that we are supposed to advance beyond. … Everything from this point on is gravy. They’ve had a tremendous season.”
A Season for the Record Books
The Comets came into the season picked to finish second in the ASC to rival UT Tyler. But UT Dallas managed to go 1-1 against them in the regular season, stealing their meeting on UT Tyler’s floor to hand them their only loss of the regular season.
“This team is special to me and it’s like I said a million times, it’s not because of the wins. It’s because of who they are and our relationships that we have off the court. I love them to death and I know it’s tough and it hurts for them right now, but they’re going to be able to look back on this in a little while and be proud of what they accomplished and how they represented our University.”
Heading into the postseason, the Comets faced an uphill battle if they were to claim the ASC crown. After soundly beating Concordia in the first round of the conference tournament, UT Dallas slipped by Louisiana College on a last-second three-pointer by senior guard Madi Hess that set the stage for a rematch between the Comets and UT Tyler in the ASC title game.
The Comets came out swinging and kept UT Tyler on its heels the entire game. The Patriots couldn’t keep up and the Comets took home a 82-74 victory on UT Tyler’s home court to seal the program’s second conference championship.
The next week was a series of firsts for the team. After getting a first-time hosting bid for the national tournament, the team beat Rhodes College, 63-38, on March 7 to earn its first victory in the NCAA playoffs.
The next day, the team faced off against UT Tyler yet again for an unprecedented fourth time. In front of the largest and loudest home crowd of the season, the Comets fought tooth and nail to overcome the Patriots with a 67-65 victory in arguably the most memorable game in program history.
“That was the greatest moment of my coaching career to this date,” said head coach Polly Thomason after the game.
Team members and coaches celebrated with family, friends and fans after the contest was over, but festivities were cut short as the Comets had only a few days before they left for Michigan.
After receiving a sendoff from the volleyball team, the squad departed from Dallas and landed in Detroit, where it caravanned to its hotel just a few miles from Calvin College, where the game was set to be played.
Even though the team was hundreds of miles away from home, it was not alone in the state’s Lower Peninsula. Several parents and family members made the trek north to cheer on their beloved Comets.
Two fans, Dianne Hess-Gaona, Madi Hess’s mom, and her husband, Kenny Gaona, both traveled from Austin to see their daughter play in what could potentially be her last game. Hess-Gaona said she was full of mixed emotions watching her daughter achieve so much in her last season of collegiate basketball.
“You realize that her being a senior, this is the end of this part of her life and our part because we’ve been doing this for so long,” she said. “We’re not going to know what to do next fall when we don’t have to look at a basketball schedule or plan trips. It’s going to be emotional, win or lose.”
In addition to many parents, the on-the-road fan base included UT Dallas administrators, Comet sports staff, UT Dallas Cheerleaders and student journalists.
UT Dallas President David E. Daniel was among the supporters who made the trip and said regardless of the game’s outcome, he was glad that the team had a chance to compete on such a big stage.
“I’m proud that they had the opportunity to come to this national event and showcase the University,” he said. “More than anything else, I’m just proud of our student-athletes.”
As the team headed back from that last practice, seniors Amber Brown, Emily Price, Christina Brosnahan and Hess piled into a van that Brown lovingly referred to as “The Swag Wagon.” Joking back and forth on their way to the hotel, it was evident the teammates were clearheaded with just a few hours left before tipoff.
Soaring to New Heights
UT Dallas Women’s Basketball Team
Record: 26-5 overall, 17-3 in the ASC, 2-1 in the NCAA tournament
School records: Wins (26), winning streak (10)
Postseason: American Southwest Conference tournament champs (second time), Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Division III National Tournament (first time)
Coach Polly Thomason: South Region Coach of the Year
Madi Hess, senior guard: All-South Region second team, All-ASC first team, ASC tournament MVP; set school’s single-season assist record (158)
Amber Brown, senior guard: NCAA All-Sectional Tournament team, All-ASC third team, All-ASC Defensive team
The Last Game
UT Dallas fans quickly filled up the corner of the gymnasium designated for them and waited for the Comets to take the floor. The team entered the court to a chorus of cheers as it emerged from the locker room.
Once the game started, the Comets came out fighting, trailing by two points heading into halftime. Coming out in the second half, the team battled against the Bruins as the lead switched back and forth between the seemingly evenly matched teams. But, George Fox’s suffocating defense caused UT Dallas to turn the ball over 10 times in the second half, which came back to haunt the Comets as the clock wound down.
“Once we started breaking the press, everything started getting better,” Hess said. “I don’t know. … It was good defense.”
With less than a minute remaining, the Comets trailed by only one point, but George Fox managed to pull off a series of crucial plays that put the game away. After one of the hardest-fought games of the season, the Comets fell short 77-73.
As the team gathered on the court for the last time of the year, tears flowed as the players willed themselves to congregate in one last huddle. As the teammates jogged off the court, Comets fans saluted them with a standing ovation.
Despite the loss, the Comets had completed their greatest season in program history.
After the game, Thomason said she was proud of what the team had been able to achieve.
“This team is special to me and it’s like I said a million times, it’s not because of the wins,” she said. “It’s because of who they are and our relationships that we have off the court. I love them to death and I know it’s tough and it hurts for them right now, but they’re going to be able to look back on this in a little while and be proud of what they accomplished and how they represented our University.”
Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].