Looking up, but no where to go

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Taking the court for the season's final home game, Warren Wilson College's women's basketball team didn’t know whether it would be invited to the 2017 USCAA Division II Championship tournament in Pennsylvania.

By the time they came off the court Feb. 21 with a win over Piedmont International University, the Lady Owls had picked up their 12th win in 16 games. They also had their biggest offensive output of the season. But none of that was enough to make the Pennsylvania playoffs Feb. 28-March 4.

“My first thought," head coach Robin Davis said. "was we got screwed again.”

Davis felt that way last season. The Lady Owls were good then too, and Davis felt like they were on the cusp of being selected for the tournament. Having served on the coaches' poll committee, she thought their chances were even better this year.  "I thought we were pretty much a lock,” she said.

Warren Wilson finished the season 17-13, nearly identical to the 17-12 mark the team posted a year ago despite what Davis said was the third-most difficult schedule in the conference. Disappointed not to make the tournament last year, she decided to make the 2016-17 schedule even tougher.

“We carried the toughest schedule all season long,” she said. “Then we sit and watch teams that play community colleges go to the tournament.”

The Lady Owls posted a .764-winning-percentage through the final 17 games of the season. They were 4-9 through the first 13 games of the season, losing games to NCAA Division I schools like UNC Asheville and USC Upstate (televised on ESPN3 and Big South Network respectively), as well as NCAA Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University, Brevard College, Lander University and Bob Jones University (the Lady Owls later beat Bob Jones University in February at home).

The Lady Owl's 116-38 win over Piedmont International University was likely the highest-scoring game in the program's history, WWC athletic director Stacey Enos said. Davis' starters played less than half the game. The team turned in "a phenomenal performance," Enos said.

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None of that was good enough to earn a spot in the national championship, held annually in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Enos told Davis the Lady Owls had missed the cut at the end of the first quarter of their blowout victory over Piedmont International.

The U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association invites 10 teams to its men's Division II national championship tournament, but it invites only eight to the women’s Division II tournament. Three of the eight eight spots in the women's tournament are automatic bids awarded to the winners of the league’s conferences. The unaffiliated team with the best overall record earns a spot as well. As host every year, Penn State Fayette (12-13) gets an automatic bid.

That leaves the rest of the teams vying for three spots, half the number of at-large bids the men's teams scramble for. (After last season, Warren Wilson unsuccessfully petitioned the USCAA to expand the women's tournament to 10 teams.)

The USCAA's committee of coaches votes weekly on team rankings, and every voting member is supposed to monitor the performance of the teams in the league, according to Enos. "What we know," she said, "is that people aren’t doing their due diligence.”

Possibly lending credence to Enos' claim was the Lady Owls's schedule - the toughest in the league, by Davis' estimation - and the team's entering its final regular season game at the top in three-pointers made (219). It was also third in the league in three-point percentage (31.9) and seventh in field goals made (656).

The five automatic bids went to Central Maine Community College (Yankee Small College Conference), Penn State University Lehigh Valley (Penn State University Athletic Conference), Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (Hudson Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Conference), Villa Maria College (Independent) and the host school, PSU Fayette, the number 8 seed.

An at-large bid was awarded to PSU Hazelton, which lost in the PSUAC conference final to PSU Brandywine, which also got an at-large invitation. Southern Maine Community College earned the final spot.

"If we would've gotten in, we would've been a contender," Davis said. "Our style of play is too fast for the teams up there."

The USCAA is exploring the idea of expanding the women's Division II field, according to its executive director and CEO, Matthew Simms.

"The USCAA added a Women’s Division II National Championship in 2013 following significant growth in membership," he said in an email.  "Prior to this, the women’s tournament was one division, with 16 teams."

Simms said his organization has been vigilant in its compliance with Title IX, which mandates equity among men's and women's sports. The USCAA does not receiving federal funding, he said.

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