The party started late at Alumni Gymnasium, and the fun started later still.
After waiting almost the entire day for their chance to play in the NCAA tournament, it was another hour before the Centre College women truly began to enjoy themselves.
That happened just after 11 p.m. Friday, when the Colonels raced past Guilford and on to a 59-47 victory in the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament.
Centre outscored Guilford 26-4 over about 12 minutes in the second half for a come-from-behind win that sent the Colonels into a second-round game tonight against Washington (Mo.).
“These guys all year have been on a mission and trusting themselves, and they finally settled in in the second half and played and got in our rhythm and what we wanted to do,” Centre coach Wendie Austin-Robinson said. “This team loves playing together, and we live to play one more, thank goodness.”
Maggie Prewitt led Centre (25-3) with 21 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, and Lauren Huter added 13 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots for the Colonels in their first NCAA game since 2001.
The lead changed hands only once, when Centre scored seven straight points to go up 38-35 with 13:22 remaining after it had trailed for the first 24 minutes. That spurt came at the front end of the 26-4 run that also included strings of 11 and eight consecutive points.
“We got down and nobody freaked out, nobody panicked, really. ‘Oh, we’ve done this before. We know we can score seven points in 2 minutes and it’s no big deal,’” Prewitt said. “So we had faith in each other and kept playing hard, and when you worry about playing instead of worrying about, ‘Oh, I’m down,’ it comes a lot easier.”
As Centre’s lead grew, so did the noise from the sizeable student section that made up much of the near-capacity crowd.
“I think that’s the most fun basketball game I’ve ever played in. The student section was awesome. We couldn’t have asked for a better crowd,” Huter said.
The game came at the end of an unusual day in which severe weather delayed the two first-round games played at Centre.
The starting times had already been pushed back when severe storms moved into Danville and players were moved to the ground-floor hallways of Sutcliffe Hall beneath the gym.
Players from three of the four teams were there with nothing much to do and nothing much to say to each other — until some of the Colonels got an idea.
“Our team really likes to make friends wherever we go, and when we were all down there we were just kind of sitting there and it was kind of quiet, so we decided to have a little talent show, and we got Alyson Burke (a Centre guard who is part of a country music duo) to sing a couple of songs for us,” Prewitt said. “She really broke the ice and everybody was amazed, and from there we all just started sharing talent — or the lack of talent — and it was just a really good time.”
Centre’s game finally tipped off at 10 p.m. — three hours after the scheduled start time — but it still took some time for the Colonels to get going. They missed their first seven shots and 16 of their first 19 from the field, and they were beaten badly on the boards in the first half — 25-17 — as Guilford (22-7) led by as many as seven points and held a 30-25 advantage at halftime.
“We talked about how many times before we had been in that situation, down at halftime, and it was time to just settle in and make our runs, get over the nerves and just play basketball,” Austin-Robinson said.
Forward Chelsea Benham said the Colonels were confident they had a comeback in them.
“There’s always a comeback,” she said.
The Colonels started gathering momentum right from the start of the second half when Bridget Winstead sank a 3-point shot on their first possession.
“I think Bridget’s 3 to start the half was huge,” Huter said. “From there we just kind of got on a roll and hit some of the big shots we didn’t hit in the first half.”