COLLEGE PARK, Md. — There’s only one chance for a school to make its first trip to the NCAA Tournament like the Elon University women’s basketball team is currently doing.
It’s part of why head coach Charlotte Smith has been preaching to her team to soak the moment in as much as possible even as the 11th-seeded Phoenix prepares to face sixth-seeded West Virginia University at 2:30 p.m. Friday.
"We are definitely excited to be here,” Smith said Thursday. “I'm super proud of my team and all the hard work they've put in throughout the entire season. It's been a long journey but a very rewarding one and we're happy to be here. I told my players to take it all in and know that we are here to get the job done."
Smith has kept her message consistent all week, telling her team it's not just here to participate, it’s here to win. But that doesn’t mean that Elon can’t enjoy the experience, especially for the seniors who will be ending their career on the sport’s biggest stage.
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do, enjoy this time with my teammates and coaches,” said senior guard Lauren Brown. “It’s just been such an amazing time and such an amazing career at Elon. I’m really trying to take it all in and move forward.”
Elon will get its crack at a rested West Virginia team, which last played 11 days ago. It’s also the third time that the Phoenix and Mountaineers will face off in the last four seasons, with Elon losing both previous matchups on the road.
“They’re a very good basketball team, and they were last year,” West Virginia coach Mike Carey said. “I read some things where they said they’re better this year and I agree with them. They are better this year. They play extremely hard and they play with a lot of confidence.”
Elon’s toughest assignment will be trying to slow down sophomore guard Tynice Martin, who scored 18.7 points per game and was named Big 12 Conference Tournament Most Outstanding Player. She scored 32 in the title game to lead the Mountaineers over No. 2 Baylor 77-66.
"We have some solid one on one defenders,” Smith said. “I feel confident that we can pressure her. Our mentality is to cover the four corners of the earth when she does have the ball. The four corners of the earth to me are the elbows and the blocks, and that were forcing her to put it on the floor."
The two teams are some of the best in the country in rebounding, with West Virginia’s 41 rebounds per game coming in just slightly behind Elon’s 42.1. Senior forward Jenifer Rhodes is excited to be able to battle for supremacy on the glass.
“It’s going to show how hard we worked at boxing out and everything,” Rhodes said. “I have confidence in me and [junior forward] Malaya [Johnson] to make an impact in this game. We had a lot of momentum coming from the tournament, so we’re hoping that transpires in the NCAA Tournament.”
Meanwhile, on the offensive end, junior guard Shay Burnett is encouraged by what Elon could do against the Mountaineers defense.
"We see that they play man a lot,” Burnett said. “We run our offense for pressure release and I think that, if we play the way that we know how to play, we should be able to execute offensively."
Elon is currently an 8.5-point underdog according to sportbet.com, but Carey is quick to make sure his West Virginia team doesn’t underestimate the Phoenix.
“They’re going to be excited, they’re going to come out and play extremely hard like everything they’ve done throughout the year,” Carey said. “I don’t think, at this time of year, there’s a lot of surprises of what we’re going to do or what they’re going to do. It’s just about who executes it the best.”
And while the odds aren’t in Elon’s favor, the Phoenix has a legitimate chance to beat the Mountaineers, and a hunger to prove it belongs near the top of women's basketball.
But no matter the result tomorrow or throughout the Big Dance, Rhodes believes that the end of the season — and her career — has been a success.
“It’s bittersweet no matter what,” Rhodes said. “Either way, we had a great run and we’re ending our season and our career on a really great note. It’s better than a lot of other people can do. With that note, and even if we go farther, that’s history being made. Either way is a win-win, and I’m really happy that me and my team were able to be here.”