26-win Abilene Christian prepares for WNIT action

Coach Julie Goodenough and her team celebrate their regular-season Southland Conference title. Photo by Lyndi Felan.
Coach Julie Goodenough and her team celebrate their regular-season Southland Conference title. Photo by Lyndi Felan.

It’s a fallacy to think that the NCAA Tournament includes the 64 best teams in college basketball each year.

For the most part, a good team getting left out means a snub for a power-five team, or a top-seeded mid-major school getting upset in their conference tournament and losing out on the automatic bid.

Rarely, a third condition comes into play: The team isn’t eligible for post-season play. That’s usually a punitive measure stemming from academic indiscretions or recruiting violations.

But for the 26-3 Abilene Christian Wildcats, not making the NCAA Tournament wasn’t the matter of a snub, a conference tournament loss, or any sort of punishment.

Under the leadership of ex-Charleston Southern head coach Julie Goodenough, ACU is in the midst of its transition to Division I. Until the 2017-18 academic year, the school is ineligible for the NCAA postseason in any sport.

And for a team that has lost just one game since Dec. 4, it’s fair to think that the Wildcats — ranked 17th in the most recent CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 — would be in that bracket if they had the opportunity.

The Wildcats went 17-1 in the Southland Conference, including a 3-0 record over other teams in the post-season: Central Arkansas (NCAA), McNeese State (WBI) and Northwestern State (WBI).

Not bad for a team picked to finish ninth in the Southland Conference preseason poll.

They also picked up a trio of impressive non-conference wins over Idaho (NCAA), Eastern Michigan (WNIT), and Grand Canyon (WBI).

In all, the Wildcats posted a 6-1 record against other postseason teams, no small feat for a program that was in Division II just three seasons ago.

ACU’s success has been due in no small part to the play of guard Alexis Mason. The Southland’s leading scorer at almost 18 points per night, the 5-foot-9 junior earned conference player of the year honors.

Not bad for a player who didn’t get picked to the Southland Conference’s preseason first or second team.

While it’s an individual honor, Mason was quick to praise the people around her for helping her get to that point.

Abilene Christian players drew closer than ever this season, and finished strong. Photo by Shawn Best.
Abilene Christian players drew closer than ever this season, and finished strong. From left to right are Suzzy Dimba, Whitney Swinford, Paris Webb, Alexis Mason and Sydney Shelstead. Photo by Lyndi Felan.

“My teammates and coaches have been a big help throughout my career, and then my family’s been a big support,” she said.

Along with Mason, ACU has had key contributions from a pair of junior forwards in Suzzy Dimba and Sydney Shelstead. All three eclipsed the 1,000-point mark during the season, along with senior guard Whitney West Swinford, who sits just eight 3-pointers away from tying the ACU career-record.

Despite winning 26 games, Mason said not being eligible for the NCAA Tournament isn’t a big deal to her.

“It would be nice to go to the Tournament,” she said, “but it’s not like we can’t go to any other postseason tourney.”

That being said, the road to a WNIT title starts Thursday night in El Paso, as the Wildcats take on 26-4 UTEP, the team with the lowest RPI in the tournament.

Mason had a tough time finding an earlier opponent to compare to the Miners, and said they’re much more aggressive than any other team they’ve played this season.

“They’re definitely a more athletic team, and a very aggressive team, a lot more aggressive than we’ve seen this season,” she said.

The loss of forward Lizzy Dimba — one of the Southland Conference’s top rebounders — to a season-ending knee injury last month will make that a bigger challenge, but to have success on Thursday, Mason said the Wildcats have to do what they’ve done all year long.

“We just have to come out with energy and focus on our game plan,” Mason said.

A win would mean a matchup with either Arkansas State or Southern. But even with a loss, the Wildcats have already shown they could be a Southland powerhouse for years to come.

Not bad for a program that doesn’t even have full Division I membership yet.