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SAUNDERS: DWU women should be in national tournament

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Despite falling to Northwestern Wednesday, a bid to the NAIA national basketball tournament is still within reach for the Dakota Wesleyan University women's basketball team.

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Thirty-two teams get into the national tournament. Each conference with at least 10 teams receives two automatic bids. If a conference has at least 15 teams, it receives three automatic berths to the national tournament. This season, seven NAIA D-II conferences qualify for two automatic berths; among them is the Great Plains Athletic Conference, which has 11 women's basketball teams.

The first automatic bid goes to the regular-season champion, while the second will go to the tournament champion. If the regular season champion also wins the conference tournament, then the second automatic bid goes to the tournament runner-up.

With a 19-10 overall record this season, the Tigers are making a case for an at-large bid to the tournament. DWU is 10-9 in the GPAC and is in search of its first tournament bid since the 2003-2004 basketball season.

At-large bids are based off the final top-25 rankings, which are released after the postseason tournament. After all of the automatic bids are handed out, the at-large bids are given to teams in the top-25 rankings that have not already qualified. Dakota Wesleyan, which is receiving votes in the poll, could enter as an at-large bid if enough teams ranked ahead of the Tigers are already entrants.

"Since I have been here the (bids) are as high as it has ever been," GPAC Commissioner Corey Westra said. "It used to be that only six to eight at-large bids were given out. ... I think that is a very solid number when you compare it to other sports.

"It all depends on your conference tournaments; if every regular-season champions win the conference tournament, then the entire top 25 should get in. ... So if everything aligns, it should be the top 25 with no problem, but that doesn't always happen."

There have been a series of peaks and valleys for the Tigers this season. The highest of highs arguably came when the team beat Concordia 72-61 at Corn Palace on Jan. 20.

At the time, Concordia only had one loss and was ranked second in the polls. Now Concordia is 23-5, ranked seventh.

The win was Dakota Wesleyan's only against a top-10 team this season.

The lowest of lows perhaps came just three days later, when Dakota Wesleyan fell to Mount Marty 73-69 at home in a game in which the Tigers never seemed to be in mentally.

DWU's record against top-10 opponents this season is 1-6. The only other win the team logged against a top 25 team this year was on Dec. 1 versus Hastings, which was ranked 25th at the time. Hastings is 15-14 overall and unranked, but is tied with DWU and Mount Marty for fifth place in GPAC conference standings with a record of 10-9.

"We are just trying to focus on one game at a time and do our best to get to nationals," DWU guard Celeste Beck said. "It would really be exciting to make the national tournament. The girls' basketball team hasn't been there in a while, so it would be a lot of fun."

In its opening game this season, Dakota Wesleyan defeated Mayville State 74-72 during the DWU Corn Palace Classic. At the time, Mayville was unranked. But as of Feb. 12, it is 20-3 and ranked 15th in the polls.

"I think you need to have a couple of signature wins to have a chance to get in," DWU coach Jason Christensen said. "We have one signature win, but we really need to find another win."

While the Tigers have not stockpiled plenty of wins over top-25 opponents, they have competed admirably and given many of their bigger opponents tough competition.

In all six of the games DWU has lost to top-10 opponents, the Tigers were within five points or less in the second half of each of those games.

While Dakota Wesleyan does not have an abundance of big wins, it does have strength of schedule on its side.

"Every coach I have talked to from the GPAC, will tell you that it is harder to win our conference than it is to win two games in the national tournament," Christensen said. "I think since our conference was formed, we have won the national tournament all but one season."

The only other team to win a NAIA title since the GPAC's inception in 2000 was Indiana Wesleyan in 2007, finishing 38-0.

Dakota Wesleyan could bypass the at-large selection process all together and win the GPAC conference tournament.

But the Tigers have played seven teams that have made appearances in the coaches top-25 poll this season, making their strength of schedule another appealing reason they should be in the national tournament.

Two out of the last three years, the GPAC has sent five teams to the national tournament, and this year DWU has hovered around the fifth-place spot, made an appearance in the top-25 polls and consistently received votes to be included in the poll.

Even if the Tigers lose today and win a game or two in the GPAC tournament, they still should deserve an at-large bid to the national tournament because they have constantly challenged and beat some of the best teams in the country.

It will be the polls that determine the Tigers' fate, though.

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