A berth in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division II tournament. A tournament upset of a nationally ranked team. The most wins in 17 seasons.
Despite those accomplishments, one thing still eluded Bowie State's women's basketball team last season -- a national ranking.
In the off-season, the Bulldogs stewed over the omission and, with all of their starters back, decided they could make it happen this season.
The Bulldogs got off to a 7-1 start and then opened the new year with a 54-53 upset of ninth-ranked Shippensburg, last year's NCAA runner-up. Still, they could not crack the Top 25.
"When it comes to a school that has never really been in the spotlight, sometimes it takes a little time no matter how good you are," said Ed Davis, the Bulldogs' fifth-year coach. "People have to really see you do things."
The Bulldogs won their next six games by an average of 32 points and defeated perennially strong Pittsburgh-Johnstown, 70-54. Finally two weeks ago, they broke into the USA Today/Women's Basketball Coaches Association Division II poll at No. 23. Last week, they moved up to No. 22.
"It's a great feeling to be in the Top 25 in the nation," said Kim McCall, one of four seniors who have been with the program four years. "It seems like we've accomplished more goals than we set out to when we came in as freshmen."
McCall, Milford Mill graduate Yolanda Matthews, Dawn Hancock and Brandey Lemons were part of Davis' first recruiting class. The year before they arrived, the Bulldogs finished 6-19. There hasn't been a losing season since.
With Thursday night's 71-69 win over Norfolk State, and last night's 68-48 rout of Elizabeth City State, the Bulldogs (18-1) ran their winning streak to 16 games. They also have won 14 straight at home.
The Bulldogs are off to their best start since 1978-79, when they won the Maryland Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women title and finished 26-5.
Davis began building for this success four years ago when his first recruits helped post a 14-11 record and win their first Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament game. A year later, they improved to 19-9.
Last year, Davis added Brenonda Jackson and 6-5 center Rashida Brooks. The Bulldogs finished 22-10 and reached the semifinals of the CIAA tournament, as well as the Sweet 16.
Davis, who played basketball at West Virginia State, was named the 1996 Black College Sports Information Directors' Association BCSIDA) College Division Women's Basketball Coach of the Year.
The hallmarks of his teams are balance and defense. No one reflects that better than Matthews, who led Milford Mill to the state final four in 1993.
A shooting star for the Millers, Matthews averaged 14 points as a Bowie freshman, but has watched her scoring totals drop since.
Said Davis: "I attribute that to the fact that she was guarding everyone's leading scorer, so her role kind of changed from being an offensive player to being that of a defensive stopper. That in itself has been a major contribution to our program."
Each player has made adjustments to mold a team that has ranked consistently among the top three defenses in the nation. Bowie currently ranks first, allowing 51.3 points per game. Every player averages at least eight minutes of playing time, but only BCSIDA All-American and two-time All-CIAA pick Lemons (15.6) and Brooks (11.4) are scoring in double figures.
Matthews, who has started all but six games in her college career, said the transition was not difficult. "I think a team plays better when they have 13 players that can contribute versus having 13 players but only two that make the major contributions."
Now that they have their national ranking, the Bulldogs face the more difficult challenge of holding onto it.
Said Davis: "The ranking is great for Bowie State, but for our basketball team, it brings a great deal of pressure. They have to understand that once you are ranked, you must now play like a ranked basketball team -- not like a team that might be 15-10 but like a team that's capable of winning 20-plus games a year and maybe advancing in your tournaments. So with that ranking comes prestige but also comes the pressure of being able to play at that level."
That pressure showed Jan. 25 against CIAA foe Virginia Union at Bowie's A.C. Jordan Arena. Despite an ugly second half that included three missed breakaway layups, the Bulldogs pulled out a 55-38 victory.
Thursday, the Bulldogs rallied from nine points down with 10: 30 left to beat Norfolk State (13-6) for the first time in two years. McCall scored the game-winner on a put-back with 1: 10 left and had a couple of blocks and a defensive rebound to preserve the win.
The win boosted the Bulldogs into first place in the CIAA Northern Division at 5-0, with Norfolk State right behind at 5-1. The rematch is tomorrow in Norfolk.
Matthews said the Bulldogs are getting used to being a target now that they're nationally ranked. "Everybody wants to beat us, and we have to take on the challenge and not let it happen," she said.
Pub Date: 2/02/97