By Paul Oren
For the better part of two decades, the Green Bay women’s basketball team has dominated the Horizon League. The Phoenix have won 19 straight regular-season titles dating back to the 1998-99 season and have established themselves as one of the premier mid-major women’s basketball programs in the country.
Green Bay has been rewarded for its success over the last two decades as well. For the last 10 years, the Phoenix have hosted the Horizon League Women’s Basketball Championship, winning seven titles during that time, including five of the last six seasons. The Phoenix have regularly kept their Horizon League title in Titletown, but this season Green Bay is faced with a new challenge as well as a familiar challenger.
When it was announced that the 2017 Horizon League Women’s Basketball Championship would move to Joe Louis Arena as part of Motor City Madness, the Phoenix knew that they’d have to travel out of state for the conference tournament for the first time since 2005. Not that traveling would be a concern for Green Bay. Dating back to 1998, the Phoenix have clinched NCAA tournament berths in Indianapolis, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Dayton as well as Detroit to go along with the eight that they’ve won on their home floor.
As unstoppable as Green Bay has been during the regular season since the turn of the 21st century, the Phoenix have fallen short of its goal to get to the NCAA tournament on several occasions. Most recently it was Wright State that tasted tournament success over Green Bay in the 2014 Horizon League title game. The two teams met again the following season with the Phoenix getting the better of the Raiders and earning their first of two straight trips to the Big Dance. Green Bay and Wright State have a storied history in the Horizon League tournament, meeting three times in the title game, including a Green Bay victory in Dayton in 2005, the last time the tournament was held somewhere other than Wisconsin.
Green Bay and Wright State once again appear to be on a collision course to meet one another, this time on the neutral court of Joe Louis Arena, that is if the co-Horizon League regular-season champions can get through a minefield a tough competitors that have had their own success along the way.
Top-seeded Green Bay (24-5, 15-3) looked like it was going to come up short of winning a share of the regular-season title last month when the Phoenix found themselves trailing Wright State by two games with three games to play. The Phoenix won a late-season battle with the Raiders and then closed out the regular season with a dominant win over Northern Kentucky to clinch the No. 1 seed.
Horizon League Player of the Year Mehryn Kraker, All-League Second Team performer Jessica Lindstorm and the rest of the Phoenix await the winner of Friday’s opening round game between No. 8 Youngstown State (9-20, 5-13) and No. 9 Valparaiso (9-20, 4-14). The Penguins are led by Horizon League Freshman of the Year Mary Dunn while the Crusaders will look for Second Team All-League forward Dani Franklin to lead the way. Valparaiso and Youngstown State this season, with the home team winning each game. Green Bay swept both teams with a margin of victory of 31.75 points per game.
Should the No. 2 Raiders (23-7, 14-5) get another crack at Green Bay this season, Horizon League Coach of the Year Katrina Merriweather will have to lead her team past either No. 7 Northern Kentucky (9-21, 5-13) or No. 10 UIC (5-24, 2-16). The Norse and Flames will meet on Friday afternoon in the opening game of Motor City Madness. Northern Kentucky swept UIC this season, limiting the Flames to 43 points per game behind the strong play of All-Defensive honoree Rebecca Lyttle.
There may not be a team in the field more anxious to get back on the court than No. 3 Detroit Mercy (16-13, 12-6). The Titans lost three of their last five regular-season games, including a pair of heartbreakers on last-second free throws to Valparaiso and UIC. Following those two losses, the Titans returned home to knock off Wright State, spoiling the Raiders from winning an outright Horizon League championship. If Detroit Mercy wants another potential crack at Wright State, it first needs to get past No. 6 Cleveland State (14-15, 9-9). While the Titans own a pair of wins over Green Bay and Wright State, it also fell to the Vikings by 25 points in their penultimate game of the regular season. Sunday’s rematch will feature two All-League First Team performers in Rosanna Reynolds (Detroit Mercy) and Ashanti Abshaw (Cleveland State).Sunday’s final quarterfinal contest features a pair of teams looking to make some Horizon League tournament history. No. 4 Oakland (18-11, 12-6) is making its fourth appearance in the conference tournament and is still looking for its first victory. Led by Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year and All-League honoree Hannah Little, the Golden Grizzlies are hoping to make it three wins over No. 5 Milwaukee (19-10, 11-7) this season. The Panthers and Second Team All-League performer Steph Kostowicz are looking to not only get back to the conference title game this year, but take the next step and advance to the NCAA tournament after falling to the Phoenix 64-32 in last season’s title game.
While Green Bay and Wright State are the two programs sitting atop the Horizon League following the regular season, both teams have already lost in Detroit this season and there’s no guarantee that the top seeds make it all the way to Tuesday night’s Motor City Madness title game. Should the Phoenix or Raiders falter, it’s possible that Detroit Mercy or Oakland could continue the tradition of making sure the Horizon League tournament title doesn’t have to travel far following the championship game.