CLEVELAND: Rachel Tecca’s surgically repaired right knee wouldn’t allow her to elevate in the second half of Saturday’s Mid-American Conference championship game.
With 12 minutes remaining, the University of Akron’s valiant run was virtually over, with Central Michigan pulling away as the Zips’ hopes dissolved in a rash of missed shots and turnovers.
But what a run it was.
The greatest season in the 39-year history of UA women’s basketball ended one game shy of the NCAA Tournament, with Central Michigan claiming an 86-68 victory at Quicken Loans Arena. The Zips (23-9) couldn’t bear to watch the net-cutting, leaving the court in tears.
But the fact that the UA women and NCAA Tournament were mentioned in the same sentence would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
“I’m proud to be their coach today,” UA coach Jodi Kest said afterward. “I told them that one game does not define our season. We had a phenomenal year; 23 wins is something nobody expected except the kids in the locker room and the administrative staff. Getting to the championship probably got us into the WNIT.”
Before Kest arrived in 2006, the Zips had won a total of 24 games the previous six seasons. In that span, the most victories they had in a season were seven in 2003-04; the most MAC triumphs were three in 2000-01 and 04-05. The records — like 2-26 and 1-27 — made for a page in the media guide (and kudos to UA for still printing one) worth burning.
UA’s last winning season before Kest’s hiring was 16-13 in 1998-99 under coach Roxanne Allen, when UA went to the Women’s NIT and lost to Michigan State. When that happened in March 1999, Archbishop Hoban graduate Tecca was 7 years old.
The Zips’ dubious past made what was achieved this season all the more noteworthy. They set records for the most victories in school history (23), best MAC record (12-4), most nonconference victories (nine) and the largest winning margin over a Division I foe (46 at St. Peter’s). They snapped a 19-game losing streak to Bowling Green, won their first MAC East division title, made their first appearance in the MAC championship and had their first MAC Player of the Year and Academic All-America in Tecca. Junior point guard Kacie Cassell set the UA record for most assists in a season (252).
It was the Zips’ eighth winning seasons in 39 years, four of those coming in the first seven starting in 1974-75. It was only the second above .500 in seven seasons under Kest, whose 2009-10 team went 18-14. Kest’s record at UA is 97-119.
On Friday, Kest credited the 2008 arrival of Kara Murphy, Kest’s first recruit from St. Vincent-St. Mary, for the start of the turnaround. Tecca said it was Murphy who lured her to UA. With 593 points, Tecca broke Murphy’s single-season scoring record in 2012-13.
“I chose to come to Akron not just because it was close to home but because Kara Murphy started to turn the program around and I thought I could assist her,” Tecca said. “This team definitely took a big step in the right direction.”
When junior guard Hanna Luburgh got to UA from Tri-Valley High School, the Zips won 14 games her freshman season.
“Even last year that’s all we won,” Luburgh said. “To think back to where we were last year, we were already home. It’s really nice to get to where we were today.
“Last year we lost Rachel, so that was a big damper in our season, but I knew we were good. I knew we could get this far and our coaching staff believed we could. We’re ready for next year. This sets the stage.”
The Zips lose only two seniors, Taylor Ruper and Katie Bubna, and only one starter (Ruper). Four newcomers are on the way. Tecca played in pain after undergoing surgery on both calves in the summer of 2011 to relieve compartment syndrome and reconstructive knee surgery in December 2011. Luburgh, who scored 74 points and played all but two minutes in three tournament games, will work to improve her ball-handling and defense this summer. Kest believes Tecca and Luburgh will be candidates for player of the year next season.
“The future’s great,” Kest said. “Now there’s a standard and we expect to win every game. The kids know what it takes in the offseason and on the basketball court during practice to be here today. A lot of positives for the future.”
Before Kest arrived, if someone associated with UA women’s basketball had uttered those words, it would have been met with clandestine eye-rolling. Now with such pessimism banished, those listening will nod their heads and expect similar success.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.