Wittenberg women’s basketball turned season around in February to make NCAA tournament

Tigers play Marietta in first round on Friday in Michigan

The switch flipped for the Wittenberg women’s basketball team after a 76-71 victory at Hiram on Jan. 30. Although the Tigers won, they didn’t play as well as they wanted to, and coach Tamika Jeter-Williams let them know about it after the game.

After a day off, the team returned to practice that Tuesday with its toughest workout of the season.

“Tamika had us running,” fifth-year senior guard Delaney Williams said.

“So much,” said fifth-year senior Kristie Kalis said.

The players learned, Kalis said, what they needed to do and how much work it would take to reach their goals. Those lessons continue to pay off. Wittenberg has not lost since that practice, and it takes a 10-game winning streak into the NCAA Division III tournament.

“We all had to buy into each other and just kind of build that connection,” Williams said, “and obviously with a new coach, it is going to take a little bit of time. So we all had to buy in to Tamika. Just going through all that adversity together, it’s paying off.”

Wittenberg (18-7) will play Marietta (21-5) in the first round at 5 p.m. Friday on the campus of Hope College in Holland, Mich. No. 2 Hope (26-1) plays La Roche (20-5) at 7 p.m. Friday. The winners play in the second round at 7 p.m. Saturday at Hope.

Wittenberg hasn’t lost since Jan. 29: 67-56 at Oberlin. At that point, it was 7-7 overall and 3-4 in the NCAC. It was 0-3 against the top three teams in the North Coast Athletic Conference — DePauw, Ohio Wesleyan and Oberlin — and had lost the three games by a total of 61 points.

In the last 10 games, Wittenberg has beaten all three of those teams by a combined 18 points. It knocked off No. 10 DePauw and Ohio Wesleyan on back-to-back nights last weekend to win the NCAC tournament.

“I just think we just stayed the course,” Jeter-Williams said. “We stayed with it. It’s hard to change the culture. It’s hard to take over something from a leadership standpoint. It’s also hard to be on the other side, to be a junior or a senior — who have gone through so many coaches — and to trust (a new coach). Just the whole season, my mentality was, ‘Why not try to be DePauw?’”

Jeter-Williams asked the players, “What’s the one thing that you will be held accountable for and be responsible for so this team can move forward?”

The players bought into that message and made steady improvement over the course of the season. Jeter-Williams built the schedule to make the players tougher. The Tigers played another NCAA tournament team, Illinois Wesleyan, which plays DePauw in the first round Friday, in their season opener and won 68-59 at Pam Evans Smith Arena in Springfield.

There were ups and downs after that during a 2-4 start, and Jeter-Williams knew the first game against DePauw in December would be ugly. By the time DePauw and Wittenberg played again on the same court in Greencastle, Ind., on Friday, Jeter-Williams was confident it would be different.

“We did some things on defense I’m sure they hadn’t seen,” she said.

DePauw is not an overly-emotional team, Jeter-Williams said, and it’s the opposite for her team. She saw the teams exchanging runs on the court, and DePauw getting out of character with its emotional reactions, digging deep to stay in the game. Wittenberg matched every big play.

“That’s when you know there’s some confidence about the team that’s on the floor that has nothing to do with coaching,” Jeter-Williams said. “The team that’s on the floor figured it out.”

NCAC AWARDS: Kalis was named to the all-conference first team on Wednesday, and Williams made the second team. Williams was named the defensive player of the year.

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