Wittenberg wins first NCAC women’s basketball regular-season title since 2010

Tigers will open NCAC tournament at home on Tuesday

Wittenberg won or shared the North Coast Athletic Conference women’s basketball regular-season championships three times (1996, 1998 and 1999) in Melissa Kolbe’s four seasons as a player. She’s now 1-for-1 as a head coach at her alma mater.

Wittenberg tied DePauw for the title by beating Oberlin 68-51 on Saturday in Springfield. It’s Wittenberg’s first regular-season championship since 2010, and it’s the first time since DePauw joined the NCAC in the 2011-12 season, another team has topped the standings. DePauw won the last 10 championships outright.

The fact that Wittenberg clinched the crown at Pam Evans Smith Arena, which is named after Kolbe’s former coach, and on the same day the program held its annual Breast Cancer Awareness game, which is played in part to honor Smith, made it all the more special for Kolbe.

“It started to hit me maybe like halfway through the third quarter,” Kolbe said Monday. “It was just a lot of fun. I was just so excited for (the players). We’ve had a ton of injuries this year, and they’ve kind of been through a lot of stuff.”

Wittenberg (20-4, 13-1) is the No. 1 seed in the NCAC tournament and will play No. 8 seed Wooster (1-24, 0-14) at 7 p.m. in the quarterfinals at Pam Evans Smith Arena. If the Tigers win, they will play No. 5 Denison (10-15, 5-9) or No. 4 Oberlin (15-10, 8-6) in the semifinals on Friday at a time to be determined.

If No. 2 seed DePauw (18-7, 13-1) beats No. 7 Hiram (9-16, 3-11) on Tuesday, the semifinals and championship game will take place at DePauw in Greencastle, Ind. There was a coin flip to determine if Wittenberg or DePauw would host because they tied for first place and split their regular-season series. DePauw won and got to choose whether to be the top seed or to host the tournament. It picked the latter. That’s why Wittenberg is the No. 1 seed and why its road back to the NCAA tournament likely will go through Indiana again.

Last season, coach Tamika Williams-Jeter led Wittenberg to an 18-8 record in the 2021-22 season. The team won its last seven regular-season games and then three games in the North Coast Athletic Conference tournament, upsetting No. 10 DePauw in the semifinals, to reach the NCAA tournament. Wittenberg then lost 65-50 to Marietta in the first round.

Kolbe, who had coached on Michelle Clark-Heard’s staff at Cincinnati, since April 2018, was hired in April after Williams-Jeter left Wittenberg after one season to take the head coaching job with the Dayton Flyers.

“I’ve just really tried to enjoy this team and our journey,” Kolbe said. “Their buy-in and belief in me and my staff and what we’re trying to do, it’s been really fun to see them get to experience that. It’s just so amazing. I don’t know that they thought before the season that we could win a regular-season championship.”

Wittenberg lost three of its top four scorers from last season. Its top returning scorer, Jade Simpson, averaged 9.5 points last season and is averaging 10.6 this season.

“Jade has really bought into having the toughest post defensive assignment this year,” Kolbe said, “and also knowing that she’s going to get the best post offender every single time. She’s continued to work on her game, to accept her range and to work on facing up more and to just really anchor us defensively. It’s been fun to watch her progress throughout this season.”

Simpson ranks second on the team in scoring behind a newcomer, Jazmyn Gaines-Burns, a sophomore guard who played at Morehead State last season as a walk-on. Her dad, John Burns, was a captain of the Wittenberg men’s team in 1995 and a graduate of North High School.

“She was just looking for a different environment,” Kolbe said, “and obviously with his connections to Wittenberg and Springfield, it was kind of at the top of her list. She came on campus and met with professors and a bunch of people on campus and really got to experience or see what the full Wittenberg experience was and just fell in love with it. I’m very fortunate to be able to coach her. She’s worked so hard at her game and is such a phenomenal person and phenomenal teammate. It’s it’s been exciting to see her enjoy the game of basketball and enjoy it with her teammates.”

Two other returners, both sophomore guards, rank third and fourth on the team in scoring: Kelsey Ragan (10.4); and Taryn Cash (8.5).

“The’ve stayed in the gym,” Kolbe said. “They’ve gotten gotten up extra shots. My assistant, Lexxus Graham, has done a great job with them as far as making sure they stay in a good rhythm. They’re really growing in their competence and growing together.”

Wittenberg’s defense topped the NCAC in points allowed (54.7), and it also led the league in rebounding margin (plus 9.3).

“They’ve let us coach them and game plan,” Kolbe said, “and I feel like they’ve bought into everything we’ve thrown at them, whether it’s offensively or defensively. We’re not always the most athletic or the biggest team, but they they play so well together and they really have each other’s back on the court. I feel like that’s why we’ve been able to do what we’ve done defensively. We’re near the top in almost all the defensive categories and rebounding, and that’s just all heart.”

Wittenberg takes a seven-game winning streak into the postseason. It suffered its last loss at DePauw, 68-58 on Jan. 25, but beat DePauw 64-53 on Jan. 7 in Springfield. DePauw has won seven of the last 10 tournaments. Wittenberg won two championships (2015 and 2022) in the same span.

“When you look at it, a lot of the games have been really close,” Kolbe said. “Our game at home against Ohio Wesleyan came down to basically a buzzer beater. Ohio Wesleyan took DePauw to overtime. Oberlin took DePauw to overtime. I think DePauw, Oberlin, Ohio Wesleyan and us are playing the best right now, but I told the players to win a tournament you have to be the best team for three days.”

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