HISTORIC JOURNEY: Belmont Abbey women’s basketball plays in NCAA Division II Elite Eight tournament on Tuesday
By Richard Walker
Belmont Abbey College has long had a successful women’s basketball program.
The Lady Crusaders have won nine Conference Carolinas regular season titles, eight tournament titles and advanced to a national tournament 16 times.
But they’ve never been as far in a national tournament as this year’s team that makes its first-ever NCAA Division II Elite Eight appearance on Tuesday night at the Greater Columbus, Ohio, Convention Center.
The Lady Crusaders are 24-2 overall, winners of 20 straight and are seeded No. 4 in the tournament; The Abbey plays fifth-seeded Central Missouri at 8:45 p.m. Tuesday night, which is the last of four quarterfinal games in the event.
Belmont Abbey women’s basketball coach Jason Williams credits his school’s administration for giving the team the opportunity to play this season as the COVID pandemic created a multitude of logistical issues that have led some schools to opt out of competition.
“You know, our administrators have done a good job so that we can be relevant at the national level,” Williams said of president Dr. William K. Thierfelder, school chancellor Abbot Placid Solari and athletic director Stephen Miss. “They really backed us up last sumemr when COVID hit. They were adamant about the ability for us to play games and for us to find games. And for us to compete and build ourselves up in mind, body and spirit. And they were definitely committed to that portion when the dollars came into that equation with COVID testing.
“I am truly grateful for their continued support, which really helped us having a great season and get us prepared for this moment.”
The Abbey came into the season with motivation to play after its 2019-20 season was stopped with a 27-3 record shortly after the Lady Crusaders had been selected for an at-large berth in the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional tournament that was later cancelled by the start of the pandemic.
A senior class of Brittany Autry, Irelynn Davisson, Allie Downing, Keyla Hines, Maria Kuhlman, Hannah Roney and Keyanna Spivey gave Williams leadership that’s been put to the test over and over this season. Other contributors have been juniors Taylor Stelley, Jo Snow, Alexis Schulz and Kelli Thomas, sophomore Sydni Clawges and freshmen Shelby Darden and Sydni Addison.
The Lady Crusaders quickly gained attention as they won 63-60 at NCAA Division I UNC-Greensboro on Dec. 4. It was the Abbey’s first women’s basketball victory over a NCAA Division I opponent since the 1984-85 season.
But, according to Williams, he and his team were determined to keep that victory from “defining” their season.
“Our goal was for us to be the best we be from ourselves,” Williams said. “We really didn’t look at beating a NCAA Division I team or even making the NCAA tournament as a bench mark for our program. Our goal was always to be the best team that we could be.”
That quickly become evident this season even as each of the team’s losses came in the first five weeks of the season – a 75-67 loss at fellow Elite Eight participant Lander and a 83-72 home loss to Barton in the Lady Crusaders’ conference opener.
“Any loss is a learning experience,” Wiliams said. “For us, we had an opportunity to win that game and Lander did a good job on hitting shots down the stretch.
“Fortunately for us this season, we’ve been kind of lucky in close ones and the ball has kind of bounced our way. The start of it was that wakeup call against Barton. It was really refreshing for us that we got back and got refocused.”
To Williams’ point, the Crusaders are 2-0 in one-possession games and 1-0 in overtime contests.
Much of the success has to be credited to the team’s extraordinary balance.
Fourteen players get 6.9 minutes or more of playing team for each game, with nine of them getting at least one start. Seven of those players average 5.9 or more points per game and eight average 2.4 or more rebounds per game.
A key to the late season surge has been leading scorer Kuhlman coming off the bench in the last five contests.
A senior four-year starter who has 1,487 career points, Kuhlman battled through back issues that cost her four games at midseason. Upon her return, Williams and his coaching staff that includes former East Gaston High standout Cameron Sealey brought Kuhlman off the bench in eight of her last 10 games of the season.
“What’s going on there is a testament to this group,” said Williams, who was first hired as men’s assistant coach by Miss before returning as the school’s head women’s basketball coach in 2013. ”
Williams’ coaching background is far from traditional. Originally hired as a Belmont Abbey men’s basketball assistant coach in 2004, he worked for two seasons under former Crusaders head coach Dale Kuhl and six years under Miss before leaving to coach women’s basketball, then returning as Abbey women’s head coach in 2013.
It makes Williams a student of college men’s and women’s basketball.
To that end, he compares his deep rotation to what Gastonia’s Leonard Hamilton has traditionally done during his tenure as Florida State men’s basketball coach.
“It is kind of like what Leonard Hamilton does over at Florida State,” Williams said. “The thinking is that the depth that you have develops a whole of confidence and camaraderie and feeds that ‘Next man up’ mentality. So when Maria gets hurt or somebody else gets injured, you’ve got players with experience, playing time and the knowledge to step up and fill that role.
“The botton line is this: Each individual is not necessarily looking for their own identity and accolades. They’re willing to take a back seat for the betterment of this group and sacrifice for everybody else.”
The NCAA Division II Elite Eight pairings:
#2 Lander (19-1) vs. #7 Azusa Pacific (12-4), noon
#3 Drury (22-1) vs. #6 Charleston, W.Va. (19-2), 2:45 p.m.
#1 Lubbock Christian (20-0) vs. #8 Daemen (14-2), 6 p.m.
#4 Belmont Abbey (24-2) vs. #5 Central Missouri (22-4), 8:45 p.m.
#2 Lander-#7 Azusa Pacific winner vs. #3 Drury-#6 Charleston, W.Va., winner, 6 p.m.
#1 Lubbock Christian-#8 Daeman winner vs. #4 Belmont Abbey-#5 Central Missouri winner, 8:45 p.m.
Friday’s championship game