Wright State enjoying NCAA trip, hoping to pull off big upset

The Wright Sate University women's basketball team practicing Thursday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. The team will face the University of Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday./ Contributed
The Wright Sate University women's basketball team practicing Thursday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. The team will face the University of Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday./ Contributed

Katrina Merriweather’s job all week has been part coach and part entertainment director.

She’s got the first one down. Now in her fifth year, she’s led the Wright State women’s basketball team to its second NCAA tournament trip in three seasons (while also winning three Horizon League regular-season titles).

As for off-the-court recreation, though, there isn’t much she can do about that.

Because of the pandemic, all 64 teams have been sequestered in San Antonio since Tuesday. The Raiders’ first two days were spent in quarantine at the Marriott Rivercenter, and they’ve had limited mobility since then.

ExploreWSU women overcome obstacles to reach third NCAA tourney in school history

“It’s been easier for us (coaches) because we’re watching film. We’re trying to get prepared,” said Merriweather, whose team faces 15th-ranked Arkansas at 2 p.m. Monday on ESPN.

“We only were out (of the hotel) to test those first two days. Our kids were very restless. They also have their own rooms, so they don’t have roommates, either. They were literally sitting in that room Facetiming each other, just so they can get a little contact.”

The Raiders, who play at the Frank Erwin Center at the University of Texas, had their first practice Thursday and will have daily workouts until their NCAA opener. Ah, fresh air.

But as Merriweather pointed out, it’s been anything but a grim time.

The Raiders have their own meeting room, and the players have been getting together since the quarantine ended to engage in their usual hijinks.

“What helps our kids a little bit is music. They get a chance to dance and sing and do a few TikToks. That seems to solve every issue they have,” Merriweather said with a laugh.

Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors has had the same challenge. He said he loaded up on cards and board games for the trip.

ExploreMerriweather proud team didn't give in during challenging season

He also prepared for life in isolation by getting some feedback from, well, a few experts on the subject.

“I’ve talked to some of my buddies who spent significant time in jail. I asked them, ‘What does it feel like to be in jail for 23 hours? What did you do? What felt worse?” he said.

“We’ll apply some of those techniques just to make sure, when we do get out (for the game), we’ll be fresh, rested, happy and ready to play.”

The two coaches have known each other for years. Neighbors was an assistant at Xavier from 2007-10 under Kevin McGuff, and Merriweather’s predecessor at Wright State, Mike Bradbury, also spent time on the Musketeers’ staff.

“A lot of the things they likely did at Xavier are the things we likely did at Wright State,” she said. “Some of those things we still do now — like what they do in transition.

“They run the dribble-drive, play up-tempo and are fast-paced. They shoot better statistically than us, but we rebound better statistically. We obviously have different strengths, but there are a lot of similarities.”

The Wright State University women's basketball players pose for a team photo after their final practice of the day Thursday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Contributed
The Wright State University women's basketball players pose for a team photo after their final practice of the day Thursday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Contributed

Merriweather has elevated the Raiders since taking over for Bradbury, and a win over the Razorbacks would send the program into another realm.

Unlike the men’s team — which famously beat sixth-ranked Michigan State in 1999 — the women’s squad still lacks a signature win.

“It’d be huge,” Merriweather said. “When you play a team like Arkansas, what we’re hoping is we can keep it close and compete and, toward the end, have enough to pull it off.

“It’s not going to be us going up 10 and then the lead just grows. It’s going to be supercompetitive. It’s going to be a battle, and we have to tough it out.”

The Raiders have exhibited their toughness just by getting this far.

Merriweather spoke before season about how committed she was to making sure her players had a positive experience in the midst of the pandemic.

They’d already had two non-league games cancelled because of COVID-19 and were in danger of having even more wiped out.

Her bigger concern, though, was the lack of human contact while half of her team was stuck in their rooms in an effort to stay safe.

“The people I feel for worst for — coaches can coach as long as they want, whether it’s college, high school, middle school or biddy ball — it’s the players who only have a limited time to play,” she said then.

“We want them to have amazing memories and not look back and say, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t have fun. That was miserable.’”

It’s safe to assume the Raiders have already created amazing memories.

And anyone watching them sing and dance in a meeting room can tell they’re having fun.

MONDAY’S GAME

Wright State vs. Arkansas, 2 p.m., ESPN

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