Friday, March 20, 2015

Princeton, you're not alone. Reflecting back with Liberty on a perfect regular season

Elena Kisseleva today
Did Princeton get the shaft? We think so. Other than UConn, Notre Dame and Baylor, who does 30-0? Yeah, we hear you committee lady about strength of schedule, but we see an attractive RPI and we think an unbeaten season by any team deserves reward.

We wondered who was last team minus the big three to put together a perfect regular season, and indeed it was our own Liberty Flame. Liberty finished the 1997-98 season 28-0 only to find themselves pitted as a No. 16 seed against two-time defending national champion and only-other unbeaten Tennessee in Knoxville in a first-round NCAA Tournament game. Tennessee, of course romped, and went on to win its third straight NCAA title behind, perhaps, Pat Summitt's greatest team. The NCAA committee, no doubt, thought it was doing something sexy in matching up the lone two unbeaten teams. It left a sour taste in both of our mouths, but we wondered how the Liberty players felt about it that year.

This was a team that received its first-ever AP Top 25 vote and only the third time a team had gone unbeaten in the Big South. Elena Kisseleva was Big South Player of the Year and Rick Reeves, Big South Coach of the Year. After the tournament, Liberty was ranked 32nd in the AP Poll. But despite an NCAA Regional record of six 3-pointers from Sharon Wilkerson, Liberty fell 102-58 (cute fact that marginally relates to Princeton. It was in 1998 that No. 16 Harvard, an Ivy like Princeton, upset No. 1 Stanford).

We talked to a few Liberty alums from that team and wanted to share their responses.

Sharon (Wilkerson) Emory with her family
From Sharon Emory, the former Sharon Wilkerson, who lives with her husband Jeremy and sons Brayden and Tyce in Fort Myers, Fla. She is an independent senior director with Thirty-One Gifts.

We were so blessed to have had a previous season where we had the best turnaround in NCAA history.  The school had just won four games . . . and my freshman year (1996-1997) we went 22-8 and won the Big South Conference for the first time in school history.  We expected a 16 seed that season.  However, the next season, we went undefeated.  Now, our strength of schedule was not that great . . . but honestly, anytime you go undefeated in YOUR CONFERENCE, where teams know your plays, coaches scout you all year and know how to defend, it is a HUGE accomplishment.  

When we saw our name pop up as a 16 seed, YES, there was a bit of disappointment there.  We did not feel like we deserved too much higher, maybe a 14 seed.  But going undefeated, and then getting slapped with a 16 seed, really did hurt.  However, our motto during the first practice after the regular season was that there were about 300+ teams NOT PRACTICING, so we were blessed to be able to be still playing in March.

Sarah (Wilkerson) Erps with her family

From Sarah Erps, the former Sarah Wilkerson, and twin sis of Sharon. Sarah lives in Huntington, W.V., with her four husband, William, and four children Ryleigh, 8; Addalyn, 7; Micaiah, 5; and Will, 1.

My experience is a lot like my sister's. It is always exciting to be in the NCAA tourney, no matter what the seed. To be one of the 64 teams still practicing when other teams are wishing they were is a successful season.

I'm not sure what Princeton's strength of schedule was this year or the strength of their conference, which may be why they got an 8th seed. My sophomore year, the '97-98 team, had several significant wins, one being the win over the University of Kentucky on their home floor. Then we go on to be unbeaten in our conference, which is tough to do because you are playing teams who are familiar with your style of play and your offensive/defensive strategies. 
So I think in our minds, we were deserving of a 13, 14 or 15 seed, but not a 16 seed again.
I knew that to beat Tennessee that year, we would have to have a great game and they would probably need to play their worst game. :-) We were excited to be playing in the tourney, but disappointed when our name came up, feeling like we were paired together because we were the unbeatens that year, but feeling like we deserved a better seed. Part of me wonders if the selection committee even looked at those things or if they just saw the zero in the loss column and thought it would be a neat idea to match us up.

Having said this, I wouldn't trade my time in the NCAA tourney for anything, and we loved being a part of that unbeaten season, even if our one loss came to the eventual champs that year.

From Elena Bengds, the former Elena Kisseleva, an IT manager at SAS Institute by day who also teaches fitness classes in cycling, weight training and kickboxing. She and her husband have an 11-year old son who plays AAU basketball and competitive soccer.

My memories about the 1998 selection event are definitely the positive ones. We won the Big South tournament for the second year in a row. We were faced with the great opportunity to play against the undefeated Tennessee, who went all the way to win the tournament. It never crossed my mind to be disappointed about our placement. We had a great team lead by wonderful coaches and supported by a very dedicated staff. We were right there with God wanted us to be. 

Erin (Wall) Hartman with son Thadaeous
From Erin Hartman, the former Erin Wall, who lives in Staunton, Va., with husband Jeremy. Erin is mother to sons Thadaeous, Jaxson and Mathias.
What I remember was walking through the tunnel at Tennessee. The life-size pictures on the wall weren't of men's players. They were women. That was a very empowering memory. It was an honor to represent Liberty.
From LadySwish:
Go Lady Flames and go Princeton!!

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