Coach Jodi Kest and her University of Akron women’s basketball team started blazing trails last season.
This year, with the program’s first berth in the NCAA Tournament, the Zips continue their journey.
The No. 13 seed Zips (23-9) will face No. 4-seed Purdue (21-8) at 1:30 p.m. today at Mackey Arena.
With its historic accomplishment comes a different set of questions, including how does UA maintain control and not succumb to any giddiness the Zips might have at what they’ve achieved?
“I think we’re more of a humble group,” forward Rachel Tecca said. “We’re not a cocky team, so I just think we just take it one game at a time and we’re just looking forward to the experience. I don’t think it’s going to go to our heads all that much.”
Point guard Kacie Cassell said a key for the Zips is keeping to their routine.
“We’re going to do everything we normally do,” Cassell said. “We’re not going to do anything out of our norm. We’re going to keep our traditions [from] when we’re on the road.”
Judging from a recent practice, UA is businesslike, but the Zips are still living and enjoying the moment.
“My kids play the best when they’re relaxed and they play the best when I’m relaxed,” Kest said. “I feel like the last two months of the season, I’ve been relaxed.”
That perceived state of mind allowed the Zips to win 16 of their final 17 games, including the Mid-American Conference Tournament. However, it will take more than that to beat the No. 17-ranked Boilermakers, who will be playing on their home court to open the tournament.
With strong support of more than 8,000 fans per game during the regular season, the Boilermakers are used to having a “sixth man” on the court at all times.
Kest expects that they will have more than 10,000 fans in attendance but there’s more than that to the Boilermakers.
Purdue can impress with an offense that has strong guard play. Point guard April Wilson (10.1 points, 4.6 assists), who took over the starting job after an injury to a teammate, leads an offense that averages 75 points per game. Backcourt mate Courtney Moses averages 15.7 points. They will test a Zips defense that gives up 73 points per game.
“I just have to stop the ball early in transition and don’t let her get all the way to the paint, definitely,” Cassell said of slowing down Wilson and Purdue’s up-tempo game.
The Zips, who average 83 points a game, must contend with a Purdue defense that allows just 68.
The Zips should not be overmatched. The Boilermakers beat all four MAC teams they played during the regular season but only one win — over Central Michigan — was by double digits.
The Boilermakers might have to shake off the rust as well. They will not have played in 15 days when they take on the Zips.
Purdue coach Sharon Versyp told a group of Purdue beat writers earlier this week that she had little idea of how that will affect her team.
“We’ll find out on Saturday,” she said. “We’re doing what we can do and it’s up to players to get out there and perform. We’re preparing them as much as we can on the court, but we’ve got to go out and have some fun. That’s what it’s about. We shouldn’t feel any pressure.”
The Zips have their own pressure point they believe is now minimized.
The focus remains on Tecca and guard Hanna Luburgh, but the Zips have become a team and everyone who plays is expected to contribute.
“It’s just good to know that we’re playing our best basketball, right now, as a team,” Tecca said.
And that has bred confidence.
“They should have confidence,” Kest said. “They’ve worked extremely hard and they need to have confidence when they walk into Purdue. Our kids have to walk in there knowing that if we play our game, we have a shot to win the game and we’re going there to win. We’re not going there happy that we qualified to the NCAAs. We’re going there to win the game.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.