Loyola coach Kellie Kennedy and Xavier counterpart Bo Browder said depth gives their teams a chance to make a run in the NAIA women’s basketball tournament.
The tournament begins Wednesday in Independence, Missouri. Loyola (23-7), ranked No. 24 and a No. 6 seed, will face No. 7-ranked and No. 3 seed The Master’s of California (24-5) in the first round at 10:15 a.m. Xavier (22-11), ranked 25th, is a No. 7 seed and will open at 10:15 a.m. against No. 2 seed Campbellsville of Kentucky (25-7), which is ranked eighth.
“When you get to this time of the year, it’s about what you match up well against and what you don’t,” said Kennedy, whose team won its second consecutive Southern Sates Athletic Conference tournament championship. “The other thing is how you’re playing going into the tournament. We have a lot of different people who are playing well. I don’t think you can look at us and say you just have to stop her and her, and it’s over. You can’t do that with us, so I think we’ll give people matchup fits.”
Loyola, making its fifth appearance in Kennedy’s eight years, has a low-post presence in two-time All-SSAC forward Meghan Temple. The Wolf Pack also has good outside shooting, led by SSAC tourney MVP Caroline Gonzalez, and depth at guard with speed and athleticism.
The Master’s is led by 6-foot-1 forward Bianca Cubello and guard Megan Lindsley, both of whom were first-team All-Golden State Conference. Cubello, also the conference’s defensive player of the year, was fifth in the NAIA in field-goal percentage (54.3).
Xavier won the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference tournament on the strength of its defense. The Gold Nuggets enter the NAIA tournament getting off to fast starts and using depth to put pressure on the opponent.
Xavier and Loyola are in the Naismith bracket of the 32-team field — and they would meet in the second round Friday if they both win Wednesday. With Xavier making its 13th NAIA appearance in 17 years under Browder and the Nuggets annually facing top teams in preconference play, he is familiar with those in the bracket. The key, he said, will be how well Xavier plays offensively.
“Defensively, we will be fine,” he said. “If we can score 65 to 70 points a game, we can reach the Final Four.”
Xavier is seventh in the nation in 3-point defense, 17th in offensive rebounding and 20th in blocks. The Nuggets average 64.7 points.
Point guard Whitney Gathright, the GCAC tourney MVP, leads the team at 14.4 points and 4.4 assists per game, and forward Donyeah Mayfield averages 10.8 points and 7.2 rebounds. A key for Xavier may be the play of senior guard Trana Hopkins: She averages 9.6 points but was the NAIA player of the week for Feb. 22-28 when she averaged 24.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.0 steals.
The Nuggets beat Our Lady of the Lake, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, 77-69 on Nov. 14.