Deacons return to March Madness

The women’s basketball team is slated to play No. 8 seed Oklahoma State on March 21

Head+Coach+Jen+Hoover+posing+with+%22We+are+in%22+signage+after+the+reveal.

Head Coach Jen Hoover posing with “We are in” signage after the reveal.

Essex Thayer, Sports Editor

The night of March 15, the Lady Deacons exited the Joel Coliseum for the last time this season, yet no game had been played. Instead, players, coaches and families had gathered to watch the NCAA Women’s Basketball Selection Show hoping that the Demon Deacons would return to March Madness. Nearly 20 minutes into the bracket reveal, the coliseum witnessed its biggest celebration in an entire year. For the first time since 1988, Wake Forest’s name was read off. They were returning to the Big Dance.

On March 4, the Demon Deacons won against UNC Chapel Hill in a game they believed earned them the right to be in the tournament. After the win, Head Coach Jen Hoover shared that sentiment.

“I felt we were an NCAA team from the get-go,” she said. “There’s no way they can take [North Carolina] after what we’ve done to them twice this year without taking the Deacs, bottom line.”

After losing to Louisville the next day, Wake Forest had to wait 10 long days, hoping their name would be called. During that time, the team practiced without any certainty that they would have the opportunity to play another game. Without any idea of what lay ahead, Hoover had to rely on the team to stay focused.

“Our work ethic has been really good. I have to credit our seniors. We got together … before we even left Greensboro, and we knew we wanted to practice,” she said. “[The team] brought an energy and excitement about still playing … thinking they were going to play in the postseason.”

The uncertainty of those 10 days had a massive effect on the coaches as well. For Hoover and her staff, that meant a lot of time spent watching computers and tv screens.

“All of us, staff to players, were watching every game that was happening. We were on the edge of our seats for that BYU-Gonzaga game,” she said.

Being on the bubble, each additional team earning an automatic bid to the tournament mattered for Wake Forest. When Missouri State, a team certain to make March Madness, announced they would be withdrawing from their conference tournament, that meant the conference would be getting an extra bid for whoever won their final. For Wake Forest, that meant another spot that could’ve been theirs was lost.

“That whole Missouri Valley Conference thing, it was just nerve-racking,” Hoover said.

When the bracket reveal began, many ACC teams, including North Carolina, quickly earned their bids. Wake Forest had to wait. As time went on, Hoover began to worry.

“We saw [North] Carolina get in and some of the other teams in the conference and [I started] to get antsy,” she said.

In the third region, sweet relief came for the Demon Deacons, though most likely higher in the bracket than they imagined. Wake Forest was projected as one of the last four teams to receive a bid and was slated by ESPN as a No. 11 seed. When their name came up on the scoreboard, the Demon Deacons were listed as the No. 9 team in their region.

For Hoover, the appearance is her first since she led the Demon Deacons into the dance as a player.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling … I remember what it was like as a player,” she said. “As nervous as we were, [hoping for a tournament bid] is exactly where we want to be. We want to be [making the tournament] year in and year out.”

To begin their season, Wake Forest was scheduled to play an extremely tough out-of-conference slate, and Hoover was concerned.

“Of our first three games of the season, two [were] against Top 25 programs … I thought ‘Oh my gosh, is this really smart?’ The team said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do this.”

In their third game of the season, Wake Forest put their name on the map, defeating then No. 24 Missouri State. In the press conference after the reveal, Hoover expressed her belief that in that moment, she knew her team was destined for greatness.

“[After the win against Missouri State] we knew this was a special group and I wanted to challenge them from day one,” she said. “That’s all prepared us for what we’re getting ready to go experience in Texas in the NCAA Tournament.”

In San Antonio, No. 8 seed Oklahoma State awaits Wake Forest in a first-round matchup that will be played on March 21. While there is much preparation ahead in the coming days, Monday night was a night of appreciation and celebration for Hoover and her team.

“This is a huge step for this program. To have the ability to hang [the NCAA Tournament] banner in the coliseum … no one can take that away from us,” she said. [This moment is] something that every one of these kids will be able to tell their children about one day. That’s what makes this so special.”