Wright State women’s basketball: Merriweather proud team didn’t give in during challenging season

FAIRBORN — Wright State women’s basketball coach Katrina Merriweather didn’t know whether she had an NCAA-caliber team when the season started in late November — not that she doubted her talent.

But the Raiders played only two non-league games because of COVID-19, and they had players going in and out of quarantine during that rocky opening month.

ExploreRaiders to play Arkansas in NCAA tourney

The only thing Merriweather was certain of at that point was that season would be a mental and physical grind.

“They could have quit,” she said of her squad. “They had every reason — EVERY REASON — to not keep going, to not keep pushing, to make excuses because we had to shut down.

“As we’ve seen around the country for different circumstances, a lot of people did throw in the towel.”

The Duke women’s team opted out around Christmas. In the Horizon League, Detroit Mercy called it quits at midseason.

“I’m very proud of this group because they kept pushing forward — not just basketball-wise, but they continued to be great teammates,” Merriweather said.

Judging from their demeanor while watching the NCAA Selection Show at the Nutter Center, the players are glad they persevered.

They shared hugs and high-fives when “Wright State” was displayed in big, bold letters late in the broadcast. They’ll face fourth-seeded Arkansas (19-8) at 2 p.m. Monday on ESPN.

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The 13th-seeded Raiders (18-7) will be making their third NCAA appearance as a program and second in Merriweather’s five years.

The 64-team field will play 63 games over the next three weeks at six sites in San Antonio and south Texas. The Final Four will be held at the Alamodome.

“It’s something you can’t take for granted,” Merriweather said. “A lot of people coach and play in this game and don’t get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. I’ve been fortunate to do that as a player (at Cincinnati in 1999) and now as a coach, and I tell ya, it never gets old.”

The Raiders’ previous two NCAA games also were against SEC teams in Kentucky and Texas A&M.

Merriweather joked that she was hoping for an opponent from the Big Ten or Big 12 — ANY conference other than the SEC. She’s put an emphasis on athleticism in building her program, and that’s a common trait in that league, too.

“They’re a bigger version of us,” she said.

But she relishes the challenge.

Wright State head coach Katrina Merriweather watches her team play Northern Kentucky during a Horizon League quarterfinal at the Nutter Center in Fairborn Mar. 2, 2021. Wright State won 74-56. E.L. Hubbard/CONTRIBUTED
Wright State head coach Katrina Merriweather watches her team play Northern Kentucky during a Horizon League quarterfinal at the Nutter Center in Fairborn Mar. 2, 2021. Wright State won 74-56. E.L. Hubbard/CONTRIBUTED

“That’s a very tough league night in and night out. They’re tough, they defend, they’re gritty, they push in transition,” she said. “Us working on ourselves helps us prepare against them.”

One plus for the Raiders this year is that they don’t have to play an anyone’s home court.

In 2019, they lost, 84-61, at Texas A&M before 2,617 fans.

In 2014, they fell, 106-60, at Kentucky in front of 5,404 spectators.

“It’s clearly an advantage when you’ve got (longtime Aggies coach) Gary Blair, who’s a legend, walking around and throwing chocolates into the stands right before the game starts. It gives them an advantage where they feel comfortable and at home,” Merriweather said.

“Everyone is going to be a little uncomfortable in San Antonio.”

The Raiders flew out of Dayton on Tuesday morning and were tested upon arrival. They were scheduled to spend two days quarantined in their hotel, each coach and player staying separate rooms.

“We appreciate what they’re doing — just making sure everyone is safe and able to play,” Merriweather said.

The Raiders have dealt with plenty of virus challenges just to get to this point.

Having to endure a few more doesn’t seem like much to ask.

NCAA TOURNAMENT

MONDAY’S GAME

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

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