Small College Sports

Cornell women's basketball surging into NCAA tournament

Rams (20-5) bring 12-game win streak into first-round game at No. 5 Hope (26-1)

Cornell women's basketball seniors, from left, Tal Neilly, Haley Grana, Renee Poulos and Diamond Boyd celebrate their Midwest Conference tournament championship on Feb. 24, 2018 at Ripon, Wis. The victory earned the Rams an automatic berth into the Division III NCAA tournament. (Photo by Ripon Sports Information)
Cornell women's basketball seniors, from left, Tal Neilly, Haley Grana, Renee Poulos and Diamond Boyd celebrate their Midwest Conference tournament championship on Feb. 24, 2018 at Ripon, Wis. The victory earned the Rams an automatic berth into the Division III NCAA tournament. (Photo by Ripon Sports Information)

MOUNT VERNON — For a decorated Cornell women’s basketball senior class, there is no better place to close out a collegiate career than the NCAA tournament.

After getting within one game of the Division III field of 64 teams in each of the last three years, the Rams (20-5) broke through in a big way this year and bring a 12-game winning streak into a first-round game at Holland, Mich., against No. 5 Hope College (26-1) Friday at 6:30 Iowa time.

“It’s really nice, especially because in past years we’ve gotten so close,” senior guard Haley Grana said. “It’s really nice this year having all of our hard work pay off. We’re looking forward to it.”

This is the second NCAA tournament berth for Cornell, which also qualified in 2013. After earning a share of the Midwest Conference regular-season title, the Rams swept both MWC tournament games for the automatic NCAA bid.

“It’s been a great year,” Cornell Coach Brent Brase said. “We’ve just had really good chemistry, good culture, tremendous practice habits all year long. They’ve continued to grow and continue to improve and have great focus on and off the court.”

Cornell is led by fifth-year senior Diamond Boyd, who on Wednesday was named Midwest Conference Player of the Year for the second year in a row. The Elk Grove Village, Ill., native leads the Rams in scoring (15.4 points per game), rebounds (10.0 per game), steals (90) and blocks (17).

Grana leads Cornell in assists (76) and 3-pointers (51), while fellow seniors Tal Neilly and Renee Poulos provide experienced depth off the bench.

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“How we are on the court with each other is the biggest thing,” Boyd said. “We’re always cheering for one another, even when things aren’t going our way, we’re still really positive with one another.”

Cornell has allowed less than 50 points per game during its current win streak and ranks 14th in the country in turnover margin (8.96 per game). Those two program hallmarks, plus rebounding, are a must to topple Hope.

“I don’t think we’ve ever really focused too much on a team,” Boyd said. “Really, we focus more on ourselves. For us, that is playing defense the best that we can play it every single possession, every single drill. We focus a lot on our defense and then our offense will come. That is the way it has always been.”

The other Iowa team in the field is second-ranked Wartburg (27-0), which hosts Webster (Mo.) Friday at 5:30. The Knights reached the national semifinals in 2016.

l Comments: douglas.miles@thegazette.com

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