DES MOINES — Drake women’s basketball team is back in the NCAA Tournament.
Making its first appearance since the 2006-07 season, the Bulldogs enter Saturday’s opening round game against Kansas State as hot as any team in the country.
This season’s success shows the hard work and vision head coach Jennie Baranczyk had several seasons ago is starting to pay off.
Drake, a 10 seed in the Lexington region, opens against seventh-seeded Kansas State. Tip is set for 3 p.m. at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kansas.
The winner advances to face either second seed Stanford or 15th-seeded New Mexico State, also Monday in Kansas.
Drake is on a roll heading to Kansas. The 20th-ranked Bulldogs have won 22 in a row, their last loss coming on Dec. 21 against Auburn.
The Bulldogs went a perfect 18-0 in Missouri Valley Conference play during the regular season, then won all three games to claim the league’s tournament title last weekend in Moline, Illinois.
Even with all of Drake’s success, they were only given a 10 seed.
While the Bulldogs could have certainly been disappointed with the seed, Wendell believes it will all work out.
“It ended up being a good thing for us,” said senior Lizzy Wendell said. “It worked out. We’re happy with it.”
Wendell likes how the Bulldogs matchup with the Wildcats.
“It’s a good matchup for us,” Wendell said.
Wendell was one of Baranczyk’s first recruits to Des Moines.
What Baranczyk sold, Wendell bought.
“Since Jenny got here, we’ve had this vision and plan to build up towards this,” Wendell said.
It has helped Wendell become one of the best players in Drake history.
“You have to believe in the vision, believe in the plan,” Wendell said. “Seeing it come together right now is great.”
Baranczyk has instilled confidence in her players they could play in the NCAA Tournament.
That has come together in a magical season on Forest Avenue.
“We knew it could and would happen,” Wendell said. “She’s building a really good program. We’ve continued to grow where we’re at now.”
Manhattan’s location, a reasonable five-hour drive from Des Moines, also works in Drake’s favor.
“It’s a good location and we should have a lot of Drake fans there,” Wendell said. “We’re definitely happy with it.”
“We’re really happy to be playing in this tournament.”
Saturday’s game will be a homecoming of sorts for several members.
Four of the 12 hail from the greater Kansas City metropolitan area — Wendell, freshman Brenni Rose, sophomore Becca Jonas and freshman Mya Mertz. Another, sophomore guard Sammie Bachroot, is from Wichita, Kansas.
“With us, almost half the team is really close to Manhattan,” Wendell said. “There will be a lot of Drake fans, a lot of family and friends from home that will get to come watch us play. It will be really fun. It’s a really good place for a lot of our families. It’s going to be fun.”
It will be even more fun for Wendell as she’ll face former high school teammate Karyla Middlebrook.
“That will be exciting to match up with her,” Wendell said.
Drake’s offense is one of the most prolific in the country. The Bulldogs are seventh in the country in scoring at 83.1 points per game. Wendell is 13th in the country in scoring, averaging 21.1 points per game.
The Bulldogs have scored 100 or more points three times, including 105 in the regular season finale, a 105-89 win over Wichita State to cap the first perfect 18-0 regular season in Missouri Valley Conference history.
Drake’s willingness to push the tempo has worn opposing teams out, unable to keep up with the deep, and athletic Bulldogs.
“We really want to play uptempo,” Wendell said. “We want to continue that into the tournament.”
The Bulldogs’ offensive diversity makes for a difficult combination for teams to stop.
“We want to pass the ball, we want to move the ball, make cuts, make our reads,” Wendell said. “It’s going to be hard for teams to scout. We don’t run the same thing two times up the floor, two times a game.”
Doing what they’ve done all season will be a key for the Bulldogs Saturday.
“We’ve got to be ready to move, make the reads, keep the ball moving, players moving,” Wendell said. “It’s been really fun.”
Drake is one of two Missouri Valley Conference teams in the NCAA Tournament this season. Northern Iowa earned an at-large bid. The Panthers, a 10 seed in the Oklahoma City region, faces seventh-seeded DePaul today (Friday) in a first-round game in Starkville, Mississippi at 11 a.m. on ESPN2.
“That’s really good for the Valley,” Wendell said. “The Valley is growing, getting better. It’s exciting to see more teams getting in the postseason. When we saw UNI get a bid, there were a lot of cheers from Drake. We want the conference to build and get better. We want the other teams to succeed.”
For Drake, all of the hard work they have put in this season will face its greatest test Saturday.
Wendell and company are ready for it.
“We’re ready,” Wendell said. “It’s going to be exciting. We are all really looking forward to it. We’re ready.”
“It’s what we’ve been working for all year. To have it finally be happening is really exciting and really fun.”