By Chris Chaney
The UC Clermont Lady Cougars’ seventh consecutive trip to the Division II United States Collegiate Athletic Association National Tournament might just be their best chance to win it. Granted the No. 2 overall seed, the Lady Cougars have their eyes set on the prize, but as the cliché goes, they’re taking it one game at a time.
“We’ve never had this high of a seed before, but we’ve never really worried about seeding,” UC Clermont head coach Mike Matthews said. “It’s always been a one-game tournament and we have to play that game before we even think about another opponent. We have scouting materials on everyone, but we’re not going to look at it until after the next game.”
The first game on the slate for Clermont is a Thursday, March 6 matchup with the University of Maine at Augusta at 4 p.m.
“We think that Maine-Augusta is a fairly good team,” Matthews said. “They will only have seven players. They probably had more at the beginning of the season, but had what happened to us probably happen to them.
“They have three really good players and it’s going to be interesting.”
The Lady Cougars will be traveling to Uniontown, Penn. with just nine players, partly due to injury and partly due to some players leaving the team for personal reasons.
Two of those nine players, seniors Ashely Keith and Stacie Lee, will lead their teammates into their final go-round at the National Tournament.
“We knew with only eight spots available and a very narrow window for an at-large bid that we couldn’t lose and the seniors played like seniors,” Matthews said. “They led with their effort and their confidence, plus the confidence they gave the other kids because we’re either freshmen or seniors, it seems.
“I expect them to do exactly what they’ve been doing (in the tournament). We’ve been talking about peaking at the right time and we’ve played our best basketball in the last three games.”
Keith, now the leading scorer in the school’s history with 1,482 points, is averaging 15.3 points per game, 8.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Lee, the Lady Cougars presence in the post, is good for 14.6 points per game and 10.7 rebounds.
Junior guard and Bethel-Tate alumna Tess Jenike has been Clermont’s most potent offensive threat this season averaging 15.4 points per game and is coming back to tournament play off of an injury.
The rest of the team — Dana Finney, Maggie Malone, Jessie Brenes, Kelsey Finn, Caitlynn Distler and Arica Stutz — will fill in their roles as needed during the tournament run.
At 20-9 overall entering tournament play, if the Lady Cougars were to get to 21-9 with a win over Maine-Augusta, the winner of Penn State-Fayette, the host school, and Albany College of Pharmacy would be Clermont’s next opponent on Friday, March 7.
The winner of that game advances to the National Championship game where top-seeded Central Maine Community College is favored to emerge from the top half of the bracket.
Many from around the country feel that the Lady Cougars will be the team that will challenge Central Maine for the title.
“Some of my coaching friends from around the nation seem to think that we should be the favorite and this should be our year,” Matthews said. “I don’t listen to any of that. I appreciate that they think that highly off us, but anything could happen. You have to play well and have a lot of good luck also.”
The team traveled to Uniontown on Tuesday to check in and participated in the pretournament skills challenges on Wednesday. The tournament-proper tips off on Thursday, March 6 with the Lady Cougars playing in the first game of the event at 4 p.m. in the Main Arena.
For information, game scores and streaming audio log on to the USCAA’s website at theuscaa.com.
Also, for up-to-the-minutes scores and updates, follow @ClerSunSports on Twitter.