LEXINGTON, Kentucky- The UMHB women’s basketball team has been here before. In fact, the previous two times the NCAA Tournament has been held, the Crusaders have reached the Round of 16. But those teams were different from this year’s squad in one way: experience.
Veteran-laden teams in 2019 and 2020, the Cru had multiple seniors coming off both the bench and in the starting lineup. That is not the case on this year’s squad, which is made up of several young standouts, and features just four players who played on the last tournament team in 2020.
Three of those young standouts-sophomores Kaitlyn Kollmorgen and Ashley Faux and freshman Arieona Rosborough– made their tournament debuts in Friday’s 79-76 victory over Webster, and have been regular starters for UMHB this season.
But you would have had no idea those three are in the midst of their first tournament run in March. Not with the way they played last weekend in Memphis. Not with the way they have approached everything that the national tournament involves.
“They’ve handled it very well,” UMHB head coach Mark Morefield said, “ but it would be a failure on my part not to bring out that Kaitlyn Kollmorgen has played in a state final four, Ashley Faux has played in final fours, Arieona has won two state championships. They’re used to making deep runs into the tournament and understanding what it takes to make deep runs.”
Rosborough’s tournament debut proved to be a memorable one, as she led the Cru with a double-double, 25 points and 13 rebounds. A true freshman, she was on the floor for a team-high 29 minutes, taking a career-high 17 shots, and helped UMHB to a narrow three-point win. The same could be said for both Kollmorgen and Faux, who contributed with 16 and 15 points, respectively. In fact, the trio accounted for 56 of UMHB’s 79 points. And it was a completely new experience for all three.
“I tried thinking about it like it was just another game, so it wouldn’t get in my head,” Kollmorgen said. “But right before tip-off, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re in the NCAA Tournament, this is really happening.’”
“I just try to take it one game at a time,” Rosborough added. “No matter if we win or lose, we have to leave it all on the floor.”
Though young, Kollmorgen and Faux each benefitted from last season, despite the twists and turns that came with navigating a season through Covid, which included the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. Even without a postseason to play for, both agreed that having a chance to see the floor, and adjust to the speed of the college game was important in their development, which paid dividends when both were listed in the starting lineup for the season opener on Nov. 6.
“Being on the floor, and Morefield really trusting me in those minutes, helped me build my confidence on the court as a college basketball player, especially getting to play in the ASC Championship Game,” Faux said. “It really helped confirm what it takes to win.
“Even though there wasn’t a tournament we were working towards, we were still working towards winning the ASC Championship and reaching whatever goals we could accomplish last year. That mindset has carried over into this year.”
Faux added that the team leadership was instrumental in helping the younger roster establish success, and that has been continued into this season. With just four players on the roster who have previously experienced an NCAA Tournament-Kasey Jo Hinton, Olivia Champion, Bethany McLeod, and Alexia Martin-it has been those four who have stepped up as leaders, not just in tournament time, but throughout the year.
“They have expressed their trust in us,” Faux said. “We have come together throughout the season. They are wonderful leaders, and always so encouraging and uplifting. Through that encouragement, it has helped each of us get the confidence to play these roles.”
“As a team, it’s good to have experience for the players who have never been there before,” Rosborough noted. “It’s good to have prior knowledge of what’s gone on in the past. And they’re always encouraging us and making sure we stay focused.”
It is important to mention something Morefield brought up earlier in the week. McLeod, Hinton and Martin played very sparingly in the last tournament. Champion did not play at all. So while they have experienced it, this is somewhat of a new experience for even the four most-seasoned players on the roster.
“You look at the three seniors; Olivia was a freshman on the last one, she wasn’t even playing. Same thing with Kasey Jo, who played spotty minutes. Alexia and Bethany came off the bench,” Morefield said. “But [this year], two of them are starters, and we have two sixth men in Olivia and Alexia. Their roles have really drastically changed since the last time we played in the NCAA Tournament. But they’re handling it with class.”
So on a team that has reached the second weekend of the national tournament, one win away from making history as the first team in program history to ever reach the Elite Eight, or Sectional Final round as it is formally known, the Crusaders have learned to rely on each other, a quality Kollmorgen hopes will power them through the next 48 hours in Lexington.
“Winning that last game really gave us a lot of confidence,” the Houston, Texas native said. “I feel like we are finally at the level we are capable of.”
Morefield would agree. Because, as he notes, experiencing success only builds a player’s all-around game. And there seems no better place to find that sort of success than in March.
“The more experience you have in something, and you have success in it, it’s only going to continue to build.”
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.