Barbara Stevens knows that on Tuesday, as the Bentley women’s basketball team awaits its 8:30 p.m. tip-off against Drury (27-3) in the NCAA Division 2 Elite Eight, the nerves will sink in.
The undefeated Falcons (32-0) haven’t played since March 17, when they beat LIU Post, 83-62, in the East Regional championship, and their game is the last of four at the Erie Insurance Arena in Pennsylvania.
“The nerves are going to hit us tomorrow and really hit home — these are the top eight teams in the country. Everyone has a shot to win this,” Stevens said Monday.
But Stevens, the Falcons’ New England Hall of Fame coach who has been to the Elite Eight 26 times in 28 years at Bentley, is also well-versed in harnessing those feelings. It’s a familiar stage for Stevens.
“We’re keeping our players calm,” she said. “We realize the magnitude of the game and what we’re playing for, but it’s our job as coaches. We’ve been giving our players a tremendous amount of confidence, and keeping them in the same pregame routine as much as possible.”
The ultimate goal for Bentley all season has been to return to the Elite Eight, regardless of its record, after last year’s exit in the East Regional championship. Dowling stunned the Falcons with a putback score in the final 5.4 seconds for a 53-51 victory.
Before Bentley’s victory against LIU Post, senior forward Jacqui Brugliera watched highlights of the Dowling game as a reminder of what was at stake.
“Because we had so many players coming back, the whole thought process was getting back to the regional final, winning it, and getting to the Elite Eight,” Stevens said. “It’s motivated them all summer, fall, and all season.”
The Falcons returned this season with a strong veteran core of seven seniors, after graduating just one player, Kelsey Roberson, from last year’s squad.
Lauren Battista, Courtney Finn, and Brugliera each started in Bentley’s 2011 and 2012 Elite Eight appearances.
Battista, an Oliver Ames graduate, anchors the Falcons’ offense with 17.2 points per game and is the program’s all-time leader in points (2,053), field goals (797), and games started (130).
Finn, a sharp-shooting guard from Winthrop and the team’s second-leading scorer (15.3), was named the MVP of the East Regional after averaging 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 3.3 assists.
Christiana Bakolas (Manchester, N.H.), a tricaptain with Battista and Finn, also started in Bentley’s Elite Eight and Final Four appearances in 2012.
“Having those seniors and the leaders they are, they taught our team how to handle all kinds of situations,” Stevens said. “They see how they handle themselves in big games and setting a tone at practice. It’s a luxury having them. We have seven kids who are somewhat our assistant coaches.”
For the seven seniors, this is the homestretch of their collegiate careers, and Battista isn’t ready to bow out just yet.
“I think each of us thinks about that each time we take the floor, it’s all the motivation you really need,” said Battista, a two-time All-American. “As a senior, you play with more urgency, and with seven on the same team, it makes for a formidable opponent. There’s no missing a shot on defense, no missing a box-out, because the game can come down to that.”Anthony Gulizia can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gulizia_a.