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'Incredible journey' continues as Elon women prepare to face West Virginia in NCAA tournament

Elon's women's basketball team, seeded No. 11 in their region, will play in College Park, Maryland, on Friday, March 17, in the first round of the Tournament. 

Elon's women's basketball team cheers as ESPN announces the team will face West Virginia University in the first round of the NCAA tournament. 

Cheers went up and arms waved in Alumni Gym Monday night as Elon University's name flashed before a national audience with the announcement its women's basketball team will square off against West Virginia University on Friday in the NCAA tournament. 

The Colonial Athletic Association champions will make history when they take the court at 2:30 p.m., March 17 in College Park, Maryland, marking the first time the university has had a team in the NCAA basketball tournament. Seeded 11th in its region, the team is coming off its first regular season and conference tournament titles in Elon's Division I era. 

"It's been an incredible journey," said Coach Charlotte Smith after Elon's game information was announced. "I'm so proud of you guys. ... But don't be happy just to be there. We have work to do and we're going in to win some games."

Elon has earned a spot in the NCAA tournament during a season that has seen the team compile a 27-6 record, including a 16-2 run against conference opponents and the top seed in the conference tournament. The team blazed through the tournament with back-to-back 28-point wins in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, capped by an 18-point victory over James Madison University in the title game. 

Fans piled into Alumni Gym to help the women's basketball team celebrate their selection for the NCAA tournament. 

​"It's definitely still sinking in," said senior guard Lauren Brown. "As a senior I feel like I've worked for this moment for four years and to see it all come together has been exactly what I imagined for my senior year. I'm so excited about our potential."

Retired faculty member Janie Brown helped organize Elon's women's athletics program, and said Monday night that she was there for the first game Elon's women's basketball team played — in 1971, against Wake Forest University. That was the beginning of a path that has seen Elon move up through the divisions and conferences to now earning a spot in women's college basketball's biggest spotlight. 

"I've seen good teams and good coaches, but this exceeds all that I've seen in these 47 years," Brown said. "To have a team that is going to the NCAA as a Division I school just really speaks well for Elon University and the program. 'Firsts' are always exciting, and you can't beat that kind of national exposure."

​The milestone for Elon's program comes in Smith's sixth season as head coach, and with what Faith Shearer, associate athletics director and senior woman administrator, notes was Smith's first real recruiting class at Elon. "You could tell from the time they got here that they had a lot of fight in them, so it's not surprising to see them end up in this place," Shearer said. "To see them develop as a team is just amazing. I felt this team could be special, and halfway through the season, everybody began to see how special this team could be. The excitement has built."

Kyle Willis, senior associate athletics director for business and operations echoed Shearer's praise for the team. "Charlotte came in here and in such a short period of time, in our third year in the CAA, she's put together a solid basketball team," Wills said. "It's probably one of the best basketball teams I've seen. They all came together at the right time and peaked at the right time in every aspect of the game."

Elon women's basketball Coach Charlotte Smith, center, laughs with Elon President Leo M. Lambert and Sylvia Hatchell, the women's basketball coach at the University of North Carolina who coached Smith during her playing days. 

​A fixture on the sidelines throughout the season has been Jeanne Robertson, an Elon trustee and steadfast supporter of the university. Robertson called this team "the best we've ever had," in large part because of the chemistry they've developed. "They study the game and they practice hard," Robertson said. "For the university, the freshmen we recruited for next year, their stock just went up in their high schools. Everything goes up when you get into the NCAA tournament. It's been a long time coming."

Smith noted that Elon played West Virginia during the 2015-16 season, a 10-point loss. West Virginia finished ranked No. 22 in the final Associated Press poll released Monday, and upset Baylor University to win their first Big 12 championship title. "They have four of their starters returning, and we played a pretty competitive game, and I feel we're a much better team than we were two years ago," Smith said. 

Elon Athletics Director Dave Blank said he was pleased with the matchup, noting that Elon earning a No. 11 seed shows that "the CAA got the respect it is due." Playing in the Washington, D.C., area should be a benefit for Elon, he added. "That's a great market for Elon and our alumni," Blank said. "We're hopeful for a good turnout and atmosphere for our games. This has been building for a lot longer than this season. To be able to accomplish it is remarkable.

Owen Covington,
3/13/2017 7:45 PM