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NCAA Women's Tournament

Bethune-Cookman ready for the challenge of playing at top-seeded Notre Dame

Lady Wildcats play Saturday against the defending national champions

Bethune-Cookman University waited anxiously to find out who the school will play in the first round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament this week.

Nearly 100 players, coaches, fans and school administrators packed into the Presidents’ Banquet Room in the Michael & Libby Johnson Center for Civic Engagement on Monday to watch the women’s selection show on ESPN.

They knew they would be a 16th seed, but it didn’t matter. The Lady Wildcats were playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time. They will face defending national champion Notre Dame (30-3) on Saturday in South Bend, Indiana.

“We’re going to get back in the gym, as a coaching staff start going through the scout [report] and get everyone ready to play a game,” said BCU head coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis. “Business as usual, but tonight was what we’ve climbed so far to get.”

The Lady Wildcats (21-10) beat Norfolk State to win their first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) title since 1984 and earn that cherished NCAA tournament bid.

Monday night’s reveal of the bracket didn’t exactly come as a surprise to senior captain Angel Golden and the rest of the team.

“This moment right here is what it’s all about,” said Golden, who was last season’s MEAC Player of the Year.

“Getting to the NCAA tournament and winning the school’s first championship since 1984 … that’s history. … It’s time to go show them what we can do,” said Golden, who was MVP of the MEAC tournament.

The official women’s bracket was displayed by mistake during an ESPNU re-airing of a Sunday show, so ESPN moved up the originally scheduled announcement show two hours to 5 p.m. EDT.

“This was everything it should have been,” said Blair-Lewis, who is now in her 11th season as BCU coach. “The students came out, the administration came out, the parents came out. We wanted these girls to relish this moment.”

Notre Dame won the program’s second NCAA championship last year and has lost just once at home this season. The Fighting Irish won the ACC tournament, winning each game by double digits, including Sunday’s 20-point win over Louisville.

All five starters average in double figures for the Irish, including last year’s Final Four MVP Arike Ogunbowale (21.0); Jessica Shepard (16.5 and 9.9 rebounds); Jackie Young (14.8); Brianna Turner (14.4); and Marina Mabrey (13.9).

“What better way to have it?” Blair-Lewis said. “This university has never gotten to go, and now we get to play one of the best teams in women’s basketball.”

When asked what she’d remember most about this season, Golden said Monday’s selection will be the high point. “This moment right here, finally getting to the championship and winning it, it’s big,” she said.

Bethune-Cookman is led by Golden, an All-MEAC first-team guard who averages 19.7 points a game, and forward Chasimmie Brown, who averages 8.5 rebounds and 10.5 points a game.

Freshman Camary Harris said she’s ready to face No. 1 Notre Dame. “I actually really am looking forward to playing them,” Harris said. “They put on their pants the way we put on ours.”

John X. Miller is the senior HBCU editor for Andscape. He's a father, jazz aficionado and die-hard UNC basketball fan.