The Road to Cleveland: Women's basketball's journey to defending MAC title
It has been almost a year since the historic day of March 16, 2013 for women's basketball.
On that Saturday, guard Crystal Bradford hoisted the Mid-American Conference Championship trophy high in the air, pieces of the freshly cut basketball net still around her neck.
She posted a double-double and led the team to the conference’s most-coveted prize.
A week later, the Chippewas season ended with a first round NCAA tournament loss to Oklahoma. From that moment forward, Bradford and the returning Chippewas have had one goal in mind: Get back to the "big dance."
“If we repeated as MAC champs, I would probably have some LeBron (James) smirks going on,” Bradford said. "We have a whole different chemistry right now. Besides, nothing is guaranteed. The hardest thing is to remain on top."
Eight non-conference losses in 2014 likely means the only path to this year’s NCAA tournament runs directly through Cleveland, a place head coach Sue Guevara said she is confident her team will claim an at-large NCAA tournament berth.
“Cleveland feels like a home court to me,” Guevara said earlier in the season.
The Chippewas are looking to repeat as conference champions for the first time since 1984, a season which CMU won out its home and conference schedule.
During last year's MAC tournament, CMU averaged 77 points per game while holding opponents to 59. Bradford averaged 18.6 points per game and was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
With success in Cleveland being the ticket to an even larger goal this year, the Chippewas road to a top seed in the conference tournament was an eventful one.
They were picked preseason favorites to win the MAC in front of two powerhouse teams in Akron and Bowling Green. Guevara crafted an unforgiving non-conference schedule in hopes, she said, of preparing the Chippewas for the intensity of March.
The team did not disappoint.
Four 2014 Chippewas are members of the 1,000-point club: Seniors Taylor Johnson, Niki DiGuilio and Jessica Green, and Bradford, now a junior.
"I've never cared about anyone's predictions on anything," Bradford said. "I know I've become more of a leader on this team. On every play I'm breaking down all the matchups on the floor. Now I'm yelling at people to get back on defense after a basket. It's the little things like that making the difference this year."
It was also a record-setting season for DiGuilio, who became the programs all-time leading 3-point shooter last December in CMU’s home-opening victory against Dayton.
“You can't describe the feeling when the buzzer goes off and you are a MAC champion,” she said. "It's just incredible to think back to the rougher days of this season. To come back the way we have means more than any personal records we set."
After three-straight losses to Notre Dame, Purdue and then a rematch with Dayton, CMU won its next 12 conference games.
The emergence of junior Jas’Mine Bracey complimented the Chippewas perimeter shooting game and gave CMU a dominating presence underneath the rim.
Bracey has the second most rebounds on the team behind Bradford, averaging more than 10 per game.
"Opponents are blanketing our 3-point shooters, Crystal is drawing two or three defenders on every drive," Guevara said. "Bracey is our stalwart in that paint. We have been able to wear some teams down in the second half using that versatility."
The women were handed their first MAC loss of the season Feb. 19 at Bowling Green. It was a hiccup against another 15-1 MAC school.
“A matchup with Bowling Green would be exciting," Bradford said. "They've beaten us on their turf, we've beaten them on our turf. It would be great to meet them on mutual terms. It's nobody's home crowd in Cleveland."
The women host rivals Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan this week before heading to Cleveland, where they will play in the conference semifinal, Friday.
"You can't exclude anyone in the MAC," Bradford said. "Upsets happen all the time. It's anybody's game and anybody's championship to win"