No buzz, but all the guts and glory

Somehow, there are a handful of Division I schools who are at the top of women’s basketball this season, but aren’t in the national conversation.

These teams haven’t shown up in mid-major national rankings, or been mentioned in news stories. Instead, it seems they are each doing the deed of kicking behind and taking names while invisible.

In no particular order, here are the seven teams you should be hearing about every day:

UMaine captain Liz Wood looks to pass. Photo courtesy of UMaine Athletics.
UMaine captain Liz Wood looks to pass. Photo courtesy of UMaine Athletics.

University of Maine, 14-1 in America East Conference, tied for first place; 23-7 overall

Coach Richard Barron has tried to instill a championship culture in the Black Bears locker room, and it’s working. Last season they were co-champions of the America East, and have already won 23 games this season, matching their total of last year.

With eight seniors, leadership isn’t hard to come by, and that combined with experience has propelled Maine to the next level. Their defense has been the difference-maker, ranking sixth in the nation. The Black Bears are hungry to avenge their conference tournament upset loss to Hartford last year, and want to get to the Big Dance.

Forward Michelle Nwokedi and center Sydney Stipanovich have been an integral part of Penn's success this season. Photo by Hunter Martin/Penn Athletics.
Forward Michelle Nwokedi and center Sydney Stipanovich have been an integral part of Penn’s success this season. Photo by Hunter Martin/Penn Athletics.

Penn, 9-0 in Ivy League Conference, first place; 20-3 overall

Defense and post play have been the keys to success for the Quakers this season, as they rank tenth in the nation in defense and sixth in blocks per game. Junior center Sydney Stipanovich and sophomore forward Michelle Nwokedi have been Penn’s engines, ranking 1 and 2 in the Ivy League in both rebounds and blocks per game. Stipanovich is the only player in the conference to be averaging a double-double at 13.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. The Quakers have been remarkably consistent all year long.

Look for Penn to punch that NCAA tourney ticket.

Alexis Mason sets up the play for Abilene Christian. Photo by David Mayes.
Alexis Mason sets up the play for Abilene Christian. Photo by David Mayes.

Abilene Christian University, 14-1 in Southland Conference, first place; 23-3 overall

Abilene Christian ranks in the top 20 nationally in offensive production, averaging 77.8 points per game, with a 17-point average winning margin. The Wildcats are top-25 in 3-point field goals made, 3-pointers per game (8.0) and steals (10.6). They began the season with a 14-game winning streak. ACU is lead by three double-digit scorers in Sydney Shelstead, Alexis Mason and Whitney West, and junior twins Lizzy and Suzzy Dimba.

The Wildcats are a close group, with a lot of on-court chemistry that is still building. They are ineligible for the NCAA Tournament due to Division II transfer rules, but the Southland title will probably be theirs.

UC Riverside, 13-0 in Big West Conference, first place; 20-7 overall

There is no way the Highlanders should be doing as well as they are with 7 active players, but they’re getting it done. Reserve Jazzmean Williams was lost to injury in a Jan. 13 game; starter Clemence Levebrve had a season-ending knee injury in a match up three days later. Starter and preseason all-conference selection Annelise Ito tore her ACL in a Feb. 6 game.

Big West player of the year Brittany Crain leads Riverside with 21.7 points per game, and became the program’s all-time points leader two nights ago. Rejane Verin (22 points per game) , Michelle Curry, Simone DeCoud, Akilah Martin, Inara Nyingifa and Tahvia Morrison round out the rest of the squad.

How far can a small squad go? They are three games ahead of everyone else in their conference, so the sky is the limit.

UTEP, 15-1 in Conference-USA, first place; 24-2 overall

The Miners beat the program record for best start earlier this week, and are three games ahead in league. The team’s defense has been the biggest key to the season. UTEP is ranked sixth in steals and is ranked in the top 25 in turnovers forced, turnover margin and three-point field goal percentage defense. The Miners also specialize in steals.

Jenzel Nash, Cameasha Turner, Starr Breedlove and Sparkle Turner are all double-digit scorers. UTEP has high energy on court, and exceptional cohesion. They should take the conference tournament title.

James Madison, 13-1 in Colonial Athletic Association, first place; 20-5 overall

In losing conference player of the year Precious Hall to injury in preseason, the Dukes looked like goners. And indeed, they had a slow start to the season, losing four games before Christmas. But team members adjusted to their new roles, and they began to click. JMU hasn’t lost since Jan. 3.

Jazmon Gwathmey (21.1 points per game) had adjusted to being the go-to player, and Angela Mickens (11.4 points per game) has gone back to the scoring role she had in high school. Ashley Perez (15 points per game) is playing her first full season after transferring. The Dukes’ post play has also grown stronger. Look for them to again pack their bags for the NCAA Tournament.

Ohio, 14-1 in Mid-American East, first place; 22-4 overall

The Bobcats have been slaying opponents in conference, and are six games ahead in first place. They are also two games ahead of Mid-American West leader Central Michigan. They had a 12-game winning streak before losing to Buffalo Feb. 3, but started a new streak and won their sixth straight on Wednesday.

Kiyanna Black (18.5 points per game), Quiera Lampkins (13.9 points per game) and Lexie Baldwin (10 points per game) lead the charge on a full roster that is strong on offense. If they remain healthy, Ohio will be the favorite to win the conference tournament.

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