Graphic by Michael Uribes/The Collegian
This time four months ago, women’s basketball all-time points leader Jaleesa Ross was adamant her senior-laden squad was Sweet 16 caliber.
But it took every second of the 2010-11 season just to ensure Ross and the rest of the seniors wouldn’t miss out on an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since arriving on campus in 2007.
In an effort to repeat a record-setting 27-win season just a year ago, a slow start and a pair of regular-season heartbreakers to conference rival Louisiana Tech hampered the Bulldogs’ season. But Fresno State’s 25th win on the season erased the memories of Louisiana Tech, hung another Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship banner and vaulted the Bulldogs into the Big Dance once again.
The road to Ross’ goal of a Sweet 16 berth begins this Saturday in Albuquerque, N.M., when the Bulldogs try to live up to their best seeding in Fresno State history against Atlantic Coast Conference runner-up North Carolina.
Fresno State’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth drew the No. 12 seed. Louisiana Tech, the WAC regular-season champion and tournament runner-up, drew an at-large No. 10 seed and will play in Shreveport, La., despite losing to Fresno State on Saturday afternoon. Shreveport is just a little over an hour drive from where the Lady Techsters play in Ruston, La.
North Carolina has been ranked in the AP Top 25 every week since the preseason. The Tar Heels sported a 22-3 record before dropping four straight ACC games in the final two weeks of the regular season. Still, North Carolina, led by senior guard Italee Lucas, was never ranked any worse than No. 15 and as high as No. 8 around mid season.
Fresno State, despite posting its sixth winning season in seven years, was never ranked in the 2010-11 AP Top 25. The Bulldogs received just three votes in the latest AP Poll.
While the Bulldogs are predominantly a perimeter team after leading the WAC in three-point percentage, the Tar Heels bring a wealth of size in the frontcourt that the Bulldogs have rarely seen this season. North Carolina boasts five players 6-feet or taller, including 6-foot-5 Chay Shegog and 6-foot-3 Jessica Breland, both starters.
The Tar Heels topped the ACC in defensive rebounding (28.9 per game) and blocked shots (5.5 per game).
Fresno State has just two players over 6 feet tall who have recorded significant minutes this season in Hayley Munro and Rosie Moult, the two shooting threats with the best three-point percentages on the roster.
But size disadvantages in the NCAA Tournament are nothing new to Fresno State in recent years. Last year No. 13 seed Fresno State was forced to game plan against No. 4 seed Baylor and its 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner. The Bulldogs were down six at half, and eventually lost by 14, but held Griner to 18 points on 37-percent shooting despite rotating in 6-feet-tall Joh-Teena Filipe and 5-feet-11 Taja Edwards.
Although North Carolina presents a noticeable size advantage on paper, the Tar Heels finished dead last in the ACC in three-point field goal percentage (25 percent) and the bottom half in turnover margin (-7.07).
The winner of Saturday’s game will advance to Monday’s game and will play the winner of No. 4 Kentucky and No. 13 Hampton.
If Fresno State is to advance to the Sweet 16, it will not only have to win its first NCAA Tournament game in school history, but will also have to win one more tournament game before the final 16 teams square up on March 26-27.