Marquette Wire

Prior NCAA experience gives Marquette sense of chemistry entering tournament

Marquette%27s+starting+lineup+is+comprised+entirely+of+juniors.
Marquette's starting lineup is comprised entirely of juniors.

Marquette's starting lineup is comprised entirely of juniors.

Photo by Olivia Qualls

Photo by Olivia Qualls

Marquette's starting lineup is comprised entirely of juniors.

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As Marquette women’s basketball jogged onto the court of the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, the team acted almost like any other game.

“Once you found out where you’re playing, you know, another game that you prepare for and you get focused for, then (any nerves) just goes out the windows,” shooting guard Allazia Blockton said.

But for Marquette, the stakes are much higher than any other game. Friday’s matchup against Dayton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament is the first time the Golden Eagles have appeared in consecutive NCAA Tournaments since 1999 and 2000.

“It’s always a privilege to play in March,” point guard Danielle King said. “Not a lot of teams make it this far, so we always look at it as an opportunity to have fun and show our best basketball.”

Marquette is returning 85 percent of its minutes from last year’s NCAA Tournament game against Quinnipiac. The only player to earn minutes in last year’s NCAA Tournament game to not return was then-senior McKayla Yentz, who graduated that May. All five projected starters for this year’s tournament are juniors.

“We really know where each other is (sic) on the floor, and we do a good job of when someone is hot or someone is on a roll, feeding that hot hand and finding each other,” Blockton said. “We know our strengths really well.”

The only player in Kieger’s rotation that has not been there before is freshman guard Selena Lott, although the team’s upperclassmen are hardly worried.

“She’s a great defender, and when she scores, she helps us a lot, too,” King said. “We just want her to keep that same energy and bring it.”

Marquette’s goal all year was to synthesize young contributors like Lott with their more established core to make it back to the NCAA Tournament. Just getting there won’t be enough, though.

“We were just so intent on making the NCAA Tournament; we talked about that all year, and then when we got there, it was like, ‘OK now what?” Kieger said. “Let’s not just make the goal to get to the tournament. Let’s make the goal to win a couple games and advance as far as we can.”

Despite a nearly identical roster, Marquette finds itself in virtually the opposite position from last year. In 2017, Marquette entered the tournament with the highest seed in program history following the team’s first ever BIG EAST title.

A year later, the team is coming off a much worse stretch of games. The top seed in the BIG EAST Tournament and unanimous conference favorite fumbled its way to the BIG EAST Championship before suffering a 35-point loss to DePaul, the team’s worst  in head coach Carolyn Kieger’s time in Milwaukee.

“Last year, we won the BIG EAST and lost our first-round game,” Kieger said. “This year we’re planning on doing the opposite.”

Marquette hardly has a monopoly on NCAA Tournament experience, though. Dayton has appeared in the NCAA Tournament or Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) for eight consecutive seasons.

“Our chemistry has grown tremendously in the past year, and we’re all good friends,” Dayton senior JaVonna Layfield said. “We’re all veterans.”

That streak includes an Elite Eight run in 2015. Senior Jenna Burdette was the team’s starting point guard that season despite being just a freshman, allowing for plenty of progression from then to her final NCAA Tournament this season.

“It’s her team (now) and she’s the heart of that team,” Dayton head coach Shauna Green said of Burdette. “She still doesn’t say that much, but she leads by example.”

Dayton’s postseason familiarity even extends to the venue. The Flyers played at the KFC Yum! Center a year ago in their 66-57 loss to Tennessee. Now, they return to the same locker room planning on a different result.

“Everything is familiar to us,” Green said. “The arena, we’ve been here. We have the same locker room, everything we’re used to, and I think that that’s definitely an advantage.”

A Marquette win would likely mean a date with No. 1-seed Louisville in the next round, although the focus is clearly on matching Dayton’s experienced core tomorrow.

“There is no tomorrow if you don’t win today, so that’s what we’re focused on,” Kieger said. “You can’t overlook any team in March, and obviously Dayton is a phenomenal team with a phenomenal tradition in the NCAA Tournament.”

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