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MAYER: In national title run, Tiger women were just having fun

It's often easy to overthink and overanalyze in today's world, especially when it comes to sports. While there are still plenty of X's and O's that can be dissected from the Dakota Wesleyan University women's basketball team's five wins in the NA...

The Dakota Wesleyan women's basketball team celebrates its 82-59 win over the Concordia for the NAIA Division II National Championship on March 13 at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa. (Matt Gade / Republic)
The Dakota Wesleyan women's basketball team celebrates its 82-59 win over the Concordia for the NAIA Division II National Championship on March 13 at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa. (Matt Gade / Republic)

It's often easy to overthink and overanalyze in today's world, especially when it comes to sports.

While there are still plenty of X's and O's that can be dissected from the Dakota Wesleyan University women's basketball team's five wins in the NAIA Division II national tournament, none of those strategies compares in importance to the team's mindset.

That confident mindset was clearly evident-especially in the three wins over top seeds Southeastern (Fla.), Saint Xavier (Ill.) and Concordia (Neb.). There was no team having more fun playing basketball together than the Tigers.

And that's how you become a national champion-by having fun. It was the key ingredient for DWU, both head coach Jason Christensen and a plethora of players admitted as much. After the team's welcome home celebration, Ashley Bray said the team's happiness and excitement stood out the most.

The first-team All-American specifically mentioned how the team would react after made 3-pointers or defensive stops. As a team, DWU drilled 49 3-pointers in the five tournament games, including 15 in the championship game. That's 49 occasions the team was able to celebrate and build confidence. The large pro-DWU crowds added to the on-court celebration, creating pandemonium in the Tyson Events Center.

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"We'd just be knocking down shots and we'd be all excited, hands in the air, jumping up and down and screaming at the top of our lungs," Bray reflected.

It might seem too straightforward-sports after all are supposed to be fun, right?

But all too often, in pressure situations like a do-or-die national tournament basketball game, simply enjoying the game and the teammates you play it with fall secondary to containing the opponents' top player or finding the perfect pass.

Over the course of three straight national tournament appearances, the maturation of the DWU women's team was clear. At the 2015-16 tournament, the Tigers were just excited to be on the big stage for the first time. They played like they had nothing to lose because earlier that season they were picked to finish eighth in the Great Plains Athletic Conference and they weren't supposed to be at the national tournament.

After the unexpected run to the national quarterfinals, expectations were sky high for the 2016-17 season. DWU was tabbed to win the GPAC and reached the No. 1 ranking early in the season. But by the time the national tournament rolled around, expectations and pressure had taken their toll. The Tigers were a bit more strained, and the team fell in the second round.

That set the stage for this season, where the Tigers knew they had the talent to compete for a national championship. Throughout the season, DWU had to find its winning identity, built through attention to detail and having fun.

Yes, the Tigers knew the importance of playing tough defense, avoiding turnovers, grabbing more rebounds and scoring consistently. But after winning ugly over Southern Oregon 76-61 in the second round, a game where DWU committed a season-high 36 turnovers, the Tigers committed to avoid playing afraid to lose.

"We're supposed to lose," Bray said after the Southern Oregon game. "We're going to go out there and leave it all on the floor."

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The pressure was off as DWU embraced the "underdog" role in the next three games. Something sure clicked after that Southern Oregon game, because the "underdogs" went on to win three games over three No. 1 seeds by a combined 52 points. It's an incredible feat that will be analyzed for years to come.

But just ask the players, it started with having fun.

Related Topics: DAKOTA WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY
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