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SAUNDERS: March sadness for DWU

For Jason Christensen and his Tigers, this was the year.

The year that Dakota Wesleyan University’s women’s basketball team, under the fourth-year coach, should be heading to the NAIA Division II national tournament.

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In Christensen’s first year as head coach, DWU finished 6-25 in 2010-11. The Tigers steadily increased to 16-15 in 2011-12 and 20-11 last season.

Wesleyan went 18-13 this year and did not earn a berth to the national tournament, missing ample opportunities to make its case for a bid to the dance.

Wesleyan played top NAIA teams including No. 4 Northwestern, No. 5 Morningside, No. 8 Concordia and No. 7 Hastings — all of which, like DWU, are in the Great Plains Athletic Conference, but unlike DWU, made the national tournament. The Tigers, who are Division II, also faced off against Division I opponents No. 7 The Master’s College and No. 17 Hope International.

But what kills the DWU women’s case is the inexplicable losses to Doane and Dordt. Both losses came on the road by one point and could be the difference between the Tigers finishing 20-11 and probably making the national tournament or sitting at home watching the tournament at 18-13.

This year, the Tigers had key players returning, including seniors Amanda Hart, Taylor Piper, Kim Johnson and Micaela Erickson. Also returning were juniors Celeste Beck and Katie Johnson — six players who had extensive GPAC experience.

Hart, an Alexandria native, and Beck were going to fill the wings up with three pointers, while both Johnsons were supposed to be dominant on the inside. Both of those things happened occasionally, but not frequent enough.

Hart had big games, going over 20 points six times and scoring in double figures in 21 of the team’s 31 games, en route to averaging a team-high 13.1 points per game. Beck scored in double figures 22 times, while averaging 12.55 points per game.

On the blocks, the Tigers got contributions from Katie Johnson, who averaged 11.7 points per game, Kim Johnson, who averaged 10.5 points per game and freshmen Erica Herrold and Kristin Sabers, who averaged 8.8 and 7.2 points, respectively.

Judging by the numbers, Wesleyan was balanced on offense this season, but it can be argued that the lack of a go-to player plagued the Tigers in big-game situations.

The go-to player was Kim Johnson last year, when she averaged 18.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game en route to earning second-team All-American honors.

Her production dropped off this season due partly to the emergence of Herrold, a Dimock native, and Sabers, a Mitchell native. One thing that also stunted Kim Johnson’s numbers was the up-pace tempo, which took post-up opportunities away from her down low.

Christensen said this season was not a let down, and he thought his team should have earned an at-large bid to the national tournament.

His reasoning is the depth of the GPAC, which has won 11 of the last 13 Division II national championships.

“The way I look at it, the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference, the Crossroads and the GPAC should make up 18 of the 32 teams in the tournament,” Christensen said. “This is not about Dakota Wesleyan, this is about the GPAC. We should probably get six or seven teams in.”

I don’t disagree with Christensen, but the difference between playing in the tournament and watching it was in the Tigers’ hands. Those missed opportunities to beat highly ranked teams fell through for most of the season. Of the 12 games against schools ranked in the top 15, the Tigers prevailed twice, with their biggest win of the year coming against then-No. 3 Northwestern.

The Tigers lose four seniors next season — some of their top players — and if this was the year for the breakthrough, when will the breakthrough happen?