When Northwestern State's first-round NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament matchup against top-seeded Tennessee popped onto the television screen Monday evening at a packed house for the team's watch party, there was no sign of trepidation from the upstart Lady Demons.
Their reaction was pure elation. The 16th-seeded, surprise Southland Conference Tournament champions (21-12) will square off against the Lady Vols (27-5) at 3 p.m. CST Saturday in fabled Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN2, with the winner to meet the survivor of the 8-9 coastal pairing of St. John's (22-10) and Southern California (22-12).
Northwestern State has won seven straight times, the last three in the conference tournament as the No. 4 seed, toppling No. 1 Lamar 61-60 in the semifinals and whipping No. 2 Stephen F. Austin 62-44 Sunday in Katy, Texas, to punch its first ticket to March Madness since 2004 and third all-time, along with four Women's NIT appearances.
Second-year co-head coaches Brooke and Scott Stoehr clapped and smiled broadly as their nearly 4-year-old daughter Aubrey happily waved a purple and white pom-pom in celebration, while team members exchanged high fives and hugs at Chili's Restaurant, where NSU fans filled every seat and open spaces to share the rather unexpected moment of triumph by a program that won just six games in the season before the Stoehrs arrived.
"To watch our players see our name jump up there across that screen was a fun feeling and a great moment for them, one they'll always remember, one we will always treasure," said Brooke Stoehr, who played in four NCAA Tournaments as a point guard at Louisiana Tech.
The matchup was not a shock. The first-ever meeting between the programs was projected by ESPN's "Bracketology" on Sunday.
The Stoehrs' second NSU squad has restored the luster to one of the game's more successful mid-major programs – one that ranks among the top 40 winningest in Division I history, and owns victories over Notre Dame, Duke, LSU, Louisville, Iowa, Texas A&M, LSU and many other high profile teams. NSU, which had only one losing season in a 26-year span, ended a recent skid of four straight sub-.500 records by surpassing preseason projections of an eighth-place finish in the 14-team Southland Conference.
Their opponents have returned to their normal status among the game's elite. Getting the chance to face off against the Lady Vols is a challenge embraced by the Stoehrs and their players.
"Tennessee is one of the most storied programs in the history of women's college basketball. For our team to experience that is a great opportunity," said Brooke Stoehr. "Hopefully we'll not be in too much awe of it, and we'll come out relaxed, compete and play loose like we have the last three weeks."
Postseason play will be brand new for nearly the entire NSU team, but playing against a prime-time opponent is not.
"Scott and I have experienced an NCAA Tournament, but nobody else in our program has yet. It's a unique experience, and an exciting one," she said. "But we have played this season at Baylor, at Texas, at Arkansas, venues that have really good crowds and can be intimidating environments. We schedule like that for moments like this, when we do reach an NCAA Tournament, and I think that can help us not be overwhelmed."
Senior forward Trudy Armstead, the Southland Tournament Most Valuable Player, echoed her coach.
"Those were good matchups to prepare us for this type challenge, to play on a stage like this. It's a very exciting opportunity to compete against a great team, and a legendary program," said Armstead.
"I think these young ladies will be prepared," said Stoehr. "They will have the confidence to compete and execute and do whatever they have to do to go out and get a win.
"This team always does pretty well in an underdog role. Some of that is the personality they've adopted after being picked eighth in the league. We've told them since we've been here, we need to be playing our best, most complete basketball in March. We got better throughout the season and we have been able to meet that goal, to get to this point much earlier than anybody might have expected."
While her team's reaction to its tournament triumphs and postseason plans has been fun to experience, Stoehr has been gratified by what she's seen and heard from fans, former players and legendary coaches like James Smith and Pat Nolen Pierson.
"It's pretty darned great. The neatest thing for us is to see this community rally around our team, and support us. When you look back at the history of the program, the people who came before us, it's almost for them," said Stoehr. "When our players can feel like they're part of that great tradition, that they've helped restore some of that, it's pretty special. They'll go down in this program's history forever. Seeing their overjoyed expressions after all three games during the weekend was really, really neat."
After Monday night's excitement, the Lady Demons' staff will be developing a game plan and counting on their young team to continue its winning approach.
"They're going to be a difficult matchup, but we're going to approach this the same way we went into the conference tournament, with a lot of determination and focus," said Armstead.