They trickled in to the gym one-by-one.
An hour away from practice, players exchanged grins as orange leather passed through white netting. A cacophony of bouncing, shouts and squeaks echoed through the Neal Fieldhouse.
Then it was pierced by one whistle.That was the familiar signal of their leader, their general, their head coach. Kris Huffman, donned in grey shorts and a gold shirt, cued the start of the season's first practice, and players hollered to the sideline and formed a circle beneath the basket.
They clapped. The excitement was palpable. But little did they know what they were clapping for, and what they started on their first practice, Oct. 18.
They didn't know a five game win-streak would extend to nine by Christmas. They couldn't know that the streak would balloon to 20 by the end of January.
But by that time, they must've at least felt it. Some had to have guessed by then the season was special. This is the first team to make it to the semifinal round of the NCAA Division III national tournament undefeated. The Tigers have done so in dominating fashion - winning regular season games by as many as 40, and as little as one. In four NCAA tournament games, DePauw outscored its opponents by 23.75 points. That's just below its season average of 26.8.
But how did this happen?
Players say they saw glimpses of greatness in preseason. There were moments in the regular season where it was evident. Now it's obvious.
"I'm not surprised," forward Alison Stephens said. "I never doubted our team, and I see how hard we work at practice and when you take a step back and look around, the focus is there during the games.
"That effort, no one in the country can match that effort."
A different early season
Mention Carthage College to a player and it's guaranteed her face will cringe.
The Tigers lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament a year ago, 53-48, where the team shot just 30.6 percent. The loss left a bitter taste in their mouths, said Kathleen Molloy, and it sparked a greater effort in the offseason and preseason.
"That was something that made us realize that even though you're going to have a great season, it can be taken away from you so quickly by one game," the senior guard said. "In the preseason it was hard to say that we were going to do great things. Achieving that goal is a completely different thing."
DePauw lost just two players from a season ago including NCAC player of the year, Katie Aldrich. However, the core of the lineup, including Molloy, was in tact.
Alex Gasaway, a junior, would fill the shoes for Aldrich. But what the team lost in pure post scoring, it gained in outside shooting.
"Going in to it as a starter, it's kind of nerve wracking and you're not sure how you would fit in to a roll and if you're going to fill the shoes," Gasaway said. "After the first two games it sort of built up my confidence and I felt like I could be here."
Not only did an opening tournament build the forward's aplomb, but the team as a whole felt assured as well.
DePauw downed University of Wisconsin-Stout, 88-48, and Wisconsin Lutheran College, 61-39. Gasaway tallied 12 and 29 points in both efforts. The fourth game of the season pitted No. 3-ranked DePauw against No. 6 Washington University in St. Louis. With two key free throws by Kate Walker with seven seconds left in the game, The Tigers came away with a 60-59 win, its closest of the season.
ISLAND PARADISE TO COLD TUNDRA
Riding a seven game winning streak after the win over Washington and defending NCAA Division III champion, Illinois Wesleyan University, DePauw flew to Puerto Rico to face two top-ranked opponents in Messiah College (No. 8) and Babson College (No. 20).
Despite the clear distraction of beaches and warm weather, the focus when the team took to the court was most impressive for Huffman.
"It helped our team chemistry and it certainly helped our level of play," she said.
The Tigers took both games, winning by 24 against Babson and 14 over Messiah in an open-air arena with birds flying in and out.
After the wins, the team had two days to relax.
"Half of us got fried," Walker, a senior, said. "It was just really fun to hang out with them, and have time with a lot of the girls."
The wins in the Caribbean capped a stretch of nine games where DePauw outscored opponents by 22 points and forced an average of 18.1 turnovers per game.
Then began the cold season, and Winter Term.
January for the women's basketball team is often where frustrations come out, and bumps in the schedule occur. NCAC competition began, and after going undefeated in the first season in the conference, the Tigers were determined to do it again.
"There's confidence, but there's not overconfidence by any means," Molloy said. "We came in to their conference and went undefeated. People can't hate us more."
Through another stretch of nine games beginning at the end of December, defensive intensity was stressed. DePauw forced 22.4 turnovers per game and held opponents to 43.1 points per game. Gasaway asserted herself as the prime scoring threat, averaging more than 14 points per contest.
And the winning ways continued.
"Certainly I've pushed them hard defensively being undersized in the post," Huffman said.
Added Walker, "It's just pounded in our heads more this year than every other year maybe."
Twenty games into the season, the Tigers closest margin of victory besides the one point win over Washington was a 10 point difference against Kenyon College on Jan. 9. During that month, DePauw outscored opponents by an average of 30 or more points.
"I go out with 12 minutes left and Ellie[Pearson] is sitting next to me. She asks if we're going back in, and at nine we know we're not going back in," Gasaway said. "That's a true testament to coach Huffman's attitude and how she treats timeouts and halftimes. That's how we win by 35 or 40 points. They are so focused by every possession and getting every single thing as perfect as we can get it."
AH 'UH OH' MOMENT
She heard three pops, and then was on the ground.
Gasaway crawled off the court as the team continued to practice, but it was hard to ignore what happened.
During a full court press drill, the Crawfordsville native caught the ball near the baseline, drove right and planted her right foot down to jump backward for a shot.
Gasaway knew that feeling, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament her junior year of high school. But this injury was a day before the NCAC semifinal game against Wittenberg University. It was also after 26 straight victories, and she was the leading scorer averaging more than 14 points per game. She scored in double figures in 11 straight games before the injury.
"I sat the rest of practice in the training room trying to figure stuff out," Gasaway said. "It was a little bit of a selfish night. I was a little pissed off. But I had no question whether or not they were going to win that weekend."
Alison Stephens stepped in for Gasaway to make her first collegiate start against Wittenberg. The junior from Prairie Village, Kan., said when Gasaway went down, she had only 20 minutes to practice before heading off to class.
Stephens, with Gasaway on her mind, pulled down 13 rebounds against Wittenberg and tallied seven points. She played 24 minutes after averaging about 18 minutes per game in the season. The Tigers defeated Wittenberg, 66-43.
"I just kept thinking about Alex and kept going," Stephens said. "That win was for us the mental turning point to think that we could do it."
A Gasaway-less DePauw went on to win its second NCAC title with a 63-49 win over Kenyon. Two days later, the Tigers were selected to play La Roche College in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Huffman and her training staff decided to have Gasaway dress for the game, but would only use her if they had to against an athletic Redhawks frontcourt.
They didn't need her, Pearson's 19 rebounds were enough, and the Tigers rolled to a 73-43 win.
Against Maryville College in the second round, Gasaway made her first appearance in three games, and posted seven points with a torn right ACL.
"I've had to completely change my game plan," she said. "I can still post up, but I can't back people down in the post."
In the next two games, Gasaway scored 10 points against Montclair State University, and 12 against Christopher Newport University.
"When she came back and we knew we had her, we knew we were now unstoppable," Stephens said.
With two more games the senior class will be the winningest class in program history. Two games would mean the second title in DePauw athletics history.
Two wins means a perfect season: literally and figuratively.
Are the players thinking in those terms?
Not at all.
"I wasn't even sure who was in the Final Four till just the other day," Walker said. "I don't think it'll hit me personally till after we're finished. But until that point we have two games till we win it, and it's not enough."
They're also out to prove their record and No. 1 ranking throughout the season were not flukes.
"I'm glad we're beating teams by 20 to let everyone know that our conference doesn't suck," Stephens said. "We're just good. People say, 'oh you're good, but your conference isn't good. I want to see you play someone.' It's just frustrating time after time."
The ultimate proof might be winning a second national title this weekend in Holland, Mich. The Tigers will have to get past Williams College (26-5) Friday evening to face the winner of Amherst College and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for the championship.
"I don't know if it was the timing of it because it was right when playoffs started, but I think it was everybody's best games started to come out," Molloy said. "You could feel the energy, and we are on a mission and we want to get something big accomplished.
"It's really exciting and we're exactly where we want to be to do this. I don't think anyone on this team will be satisfied with anything less."