The Wheeling Jesuit women's basketball program is headed back to the conference tournament after running out to its first winning season since the 2005/2006 campaign.
With victories over the Mountain East's top three teams this season, the Cardinals have made a statement that their program is back on track, and looking to make a run at a championship in 2014.
WJU posted a 14-12 mark in the regular season, and will host a first-round conference playoff game on Tuesday night as a result of earning the #8 seed in the final MEC standings.
For head coach Debbie Buff, this year's success isn't just a fluke, but the result of a culture shift in the team she took over just two seasons ago. With a young squad that has already placed two on All-Conference teams this season, the shift in culture is starting to pay dividends.
"The future is really bright. We're real excited about not just finishing the season on a high note, but changing the culture and carrying it to next year. It's been a great year," said coach Buff. "We also have a 3.35 GPA in the classroom, so I'm very happy with what they're doing off the court as well."
The 2013/14 season has been one of ups and downs for the Cardinals, but the ups have been high enough to make the conference, and DII women's basketball teams across the country to sit up and take notice.
The team gained a boost of momentum in the last two games of a six-game home stand when they caught the MEC's second place Urbana Blue Knights by surprise in a 92-67 dismantling on their home court. Just two nights later they followed that up with a 74-64 victory over the #3 team in the conference, West Virginia State.
The exclamation mark on the season thus far came when WJU took down #9 Glenville State, the Goliath of MEC women's hoops, with a 77-74 overtime win.
"Our game plan was to pull the ball out, to take the air out of the ball, and I think it really worked in our favor," added Buff. "To beat the #9 team in the country, #1 in our region, and #1 in our conference, is a huge accomplishment for these ladies, and they deserved it. It was a very, very gutsy performance."
In addition to landing two on All-Conference teams, the Cardinals have received Mountain East Player of the Week honors three times this season, with Breanna Butler receiving the accolade twice, and Taylor Lubinsky getting recognized for leading the Cards to those two upset wins.
In the world of college basketball, victories over top-10 teams don't just happen without a culture shift and the depth to put in a complete performance night-in, and night-out.
To add some depth, Coach Buff is bringing in strong incoming class next fall. Buff has only completed two recruiting classes in her tenure at WJU, and this next class will look to continue the culture she has created.
On February 5th WJU announced their crop of early signers, highlighted by some serious local talent including Wheeling Park's Marissa Tucker, 1st team W.Va. All-State point guard Cassi Stein, and Kiarra Kamarec, a 6'3" forward out of Indian Creek.
The renewed team culture of success that Coach Buff has installed will be put to the test on Tuesday night at the McDonough Center when the Cardinals host Concord in the first round of the MEC playoffs. WJU has defeated the #9 Mountain Lions twice already this season.
Tipoff for the playoff tussle is set for 5:30 p.m. . The winner advances to the conference quarterfinals in Charleston where the #1 Pioneers of Glenville State will await.