“I was like, ‘We just can’t get it.’”
No one can say that about Merriweather and the Raiders anymore.
Given little chance against 15th-ranked Arkansas, they knocked down two clutch 3-pointers in the final 65 seconds to overcome a two-point deficit and seize a 66-62 NCAA victory Monday.
They became the first team to hand a top-four seed a first-round loss since Marist beat Georgia in 2012.
Though they fell in the round of 32 to Missouri State, they accomplished the nearimpossible. Teams seeded 13th were a combined 6-100 before that win.
“It means a lot,” Merriweather said. “It’s incredible to finally get that win that says we can compete with anyone.”
Wright State notched the first NCAA win for the Horizon League since Green Bay won in 2012.
The Phoenix is the only other conference team to advance past the first round, winning twice in 2011 and ’10 and once two other times. The league is 8-29 all-time in the tourney.
But the Raiders are hungry for more.
“Now they know what it feels like to play a first-round game like that and come back 48 hours later and try to do it again,” the coach said. “Hopefully, that’ll rev up some of our training.
“Everyone has bad days in practice. Next year, we’ll have much fewer of those.”
As proud as Merriweather is of the Arkansas conquest, she believes the foundation was built two years ago when the Raiders produced a 19-12 record and a second-place league finish after graduating Symone Simmons, Emily Vogelpohl and Mackenzie Taylor, all 1,000-point career scorers (Simmons also had 1,000 rebounds).
“Coming back to win 19 games and finish tied for second — that was a step forward,” she said. “It won’t be viewed that way because it wasn’t 25 wins, and we didn’t win the conference tournament. But most mid-majors take a step back when they lose a class like we lost two years ago.
“It’s just a testament to the recruiting we’ve done, the culture we’ve built and the kids we have on this team.”
The Raiders appear poised to make another jump next season. Junior Angel Baker established herself as one of the top guards in the nation, and the four seniors have the option of returning since the NCAA his giving all athletes a free year of eligibility.
The only starter in that group is center Tyler Frierson.
“We haven’t had any conversations about returning or not returning. Seniors need to complete their season before they can give you an honest answer about how they’re feeling,” Merriweather sad.
“But anytime you’ve got the core of your team returning — and we’ve got a kid out of Florida (highly regarded recruit Zora Fray-Chinn) who’s really good and can shoot it — you’re excited about what’s coming back.”
They also have a coach in Merriweather who always seems to know how to handle issues and people under her charge.
Arizona coach Adia Barnes and others at the tourney went public with their displeasure over how training facilities for the women in San Antonio aren’t on par with what the men have access to in Indiana. There was even some grumbling about the postgame meals.
The NCAA issued an apology and pledged to look into the matter.
All you got from Merriweather, though, was a positive outlook.
She wanted her players to be thankful for every moment of the trip — and they were.
“We’ve worked really hard — and I feel it’s the culture in our program — that they feel that way no matter what,” she said. “Whether it’s Angel Baker or Gabby Redden, who doesn’t get in the game, they value the experience. We have a mindset of gratitude. And we have to keep things in perspective with all that’s going on in the country and the world.
“We’re not going to complain about food. We’re not going to complain about weight rooms. We’re going to be really grateful that this is the life we live: we’re in hotels, eating food we did not pay for and we’re playing basketball.”
Merriweather may be adept at X’s-and-O’s — she’s a three-time league coach of the year — but the Raiders’ newfound success seems sustainable because of her people skills.
“She’s an unbelievable, prodigious relationship-builder — internally, externally, on campus, off campus,” athletic director Bob Grant said. “She is like the saying, ‘Always a fountain, never a drain.’ You never have a bad day when you’re around Katrina Merriweather.”
Sometimes you even have great days. And the Raiders had their best one yet in that win over Arkansas.
Time to clear some wall space in Setzer Pavilion.