Fighting for the upset: Women's basketball takes on LSU in first round of NCAA Tournament


RS freshman guard Miceala Kelly and head coach Sue Guevara wait for their seed in March madness on Mar. 12 in Hunter's Ale House

On her way to the NCAA Tournament selection show watch party at Hunter's Ale House March 12, head coach Sue Guevara of the Central Michigan women's basketball team heard a familiar tune come on the radio.

As a graduate of Ohio State University, Guevara knew it immediately. 

"Hang on Sloopy," a chart topper by the McCoys in 1965, has been a staple of the Ohio State marching band routine at football games for more than 50 years. It's even recognized by Ohio's government as the official rock song of the state.   

Guevara took this as a sign. She thought her team would play their first NCAA tournament game since 2013 at her alma mater in Columbus, Ohio.

On March 12 in a packed Hunter's Ale House, that inkling became reality.

"I'm superstitious," Guevara said. "I know that song and I heard that on the way over and I thought, 'That's a sign. We're going to Columbus.'"

As it turns out, she was right. 

As the recently crowned Mid-American Conference Tournament Champions, CMU received its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed in the Spokane Region. The team won a school record 28 games this season in the 50th anniversary of the program. 

The No. 11 Chippewas (28-4, 17-1 MAC) will face off against No. 6 LSU (19-9, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) at 11 a.m. March 17 at St. John Arena in Columbus. It marks the fourth time in program history CMU has made the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament, with previous appearances in 1983, 1984 and 2013.

"It's really exciting," said junior Reyna Frost, who was named Most Valuable Player of the 2018 MAC Tournament. "This is something you dream about as a kid. All the hard work that got us to this moment, you can see that it's paying off."

For senior and MAC Player of the Year Tinara Moore, the opportunity to play so close to home in Columbus is perfect to allow fans and parents to travel and watch CMU play on a national stage.

"I'm so happy we're going to Columbus," Moore said. "It's only like a four or five hour drive. I know we'll have our fans down there. I'm super excited."

The matchup

CMU enters Saturday's game ranked No. 15 in the nation, according to rating percentage index (RPI). LSU is coming off a quarterfinal loss in the SEC Tournament to Texas A&M. The Tigers enter Saturday as the No. 24-ranked team in the nation, according to the AP Poll.

The Tigers have played some powerhouse teams this season, including the defending national champions, South Carolina. LSU lost 57-48 on Feb. 22. LSU has played nine games against teams in the current Top 50 RPI, and it has won four. 

CMU has only played in six Top 50 RPI matchups, with five of them coming against Buffalo and Ball State. Chippewas are 4-2 in those games this season.

"We've seen a lot of different things that teams have thrown at us," Frost said. "We know that LSU has to find a way to stop us, too, because we have a lot of different weapons offensively. It's going to be really cool to see what we can do."

Compared to the Chippewas, LSU is a worse free throw and 3-point shooting team, coming in at 61.5 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Currently, the Chippewas are the No. 3 team in the nation for free throw shooting percentage at 80 percent, along with the 12th best 3-point shooting numbers at 38.4 percent.

However, where the Tigers lack in offensive prowess, they make up for in defense. LSU has held its opponents to just 61 points per game. 

Points from 3-point range have been a staple of CMU's play. More than 38 percent of all attempted shots come from 3-point range. LSU has held teams to 27.5 percent shooting from 3-point range.

"We all know the SEC, they're athletic, they get after you, they pressure you," Guevara said. "We've faced that and that's what our nonconference and conference has gotten us ready for."

Storied NCAA history

Over the course of LSU's 43 years as a women's basketball program, the Tigers have made the NCAA Tournament 26 times. Of those appearances, LSU has made it to the Sweet Sixteen 14 times, along with five trips to the Final Four.

Nikki Vargas, in her seventh season as head coach, will make her sixth appearance in the NCAA Tournament against CMU. Vargas is 5-5 in the NCAA Tournament at LSU.

For Guevara, the game will be her fifth time coaching in the "Big Dance." The veteran coach has advanced from of the Round of 64 just once in 2001 at the University of Michigan.

"We have to keep our players on task, not too high and not too low," Guevara said. "We need to focus on what it's going to take for us to keep dancing."

Despite the lack of tournament experience, Frost pointed out that the culture and chemistry of "Team 50" will make up for it.  

"We're a family," Frost said. "Those are the kinds of teams that go on runs in March because you don't play for yourself, you play for the person on your left and right.”

Just another game

Guevara constantly preaches the ability to maintain composure and take each game one at a time. 

"This is the next biggest game they're going to play," Guevara said. "We're going to keep doing the same thing and not make it any bigger than it is."

For Moore, this game means just a little bit more than others.

"Everyone on our team wants it," Moore said. "We know this is our year, we have to do something big this year and we're going to go far in this tournament."

If CMU wins, the Chippewas will take on the winner of third-seed Ohio State (27-6, 13-3 Big Ten) and 14th seed George Washington (19-13, 10-6 Atlantic 10) March 19 in Columbus.