Don't call CMU underdogs

More news about: Carnegie Mellon
Jackie Hudepohl's return from last year's ACL injury is one of the factors in Carnegie Mellon's run to the Sweet 16.
Carnegie Mellon athletics file photo

By Ryan Scott

There are a lot of women’s basketball teams you might name in the UAA before you get to Carnegie Mellon, but after big wins over Hope and Ohio Northern this weekend in the NCAA tournament, the Tartans are on everyone’s mind. 

"We thought last year would be a breakout season for us,” says CMU’s fifth year head coach, Jacquie Hullah, “We had the personnel; we had the talent that we felt we could have finished in the top half of the UAA. Unfortunately we lost Jackie Hudepohl to an ACL injury and it was a huge loss for us. We were snake bit with other injuries, concussions and stitches – just a crazy year of injuries. Even though we battled and we competed and we had a lot of fun, last year was a season of unfinished business." 

Some of that business remains unfinished. CMU has lost 46 consecutive meetings with Washington University in St. Louis, dating back to 1993, two years after the Tartans’ last tournament appearance. The first meeting this year saw the Tartans pick up their first loss of the season after a 13-0 start, but they were without starting guard, Lindsay Poss, and felt the rematch would be their opportunity to break the streak.

"Wash U is a very tough opponent. They’re a well-coached team; they have a lot of talent. We got in our own heads,” says Poss, “This program has been playing Wash U every year and we haven’t won in something like 20 years, so we actually got up a 16-point lead and we just got in our own heads, kind of freaked ourselves out. We ended up scoring five points in the fourth quarter."

The Tartans dominated the boards in that game, winning the rebound battle 43-29, but they had 28 turnovers and just couldn’t hold on at the end. They’ll have one more chance to break the streak, though, as CMU faces off against the Bears for a third time this season in the third round of the NCAA tournament this Friday.

"We’re very excited," says Hullah, "We’ve had it in the back of our mind as we went through conference play that if we took care of business and if we got into the tournament there was good opportunity to meet Wash U [again]. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Nancy [Fahey] and her program. We know it’s going to be a really competitive game and a lot of fun."

Fun is the operative word. "It has to be fun!" Hullah exclaimed several times during our interview. Part of embracing that fun is recognizing that all of this -- the wins, the tournament, basketball itself – is serving a larger purpose.

"We want to win championships, but the real story I want to tell is five or ten years from now," says Hullah, "What career you have, what graduate school, what job you landed, what are you doing professionally? Those are the stories I really want to tell about my kids. The championships, the wins, all those things – they’re fun, we love it – but at the end of the day the real story is five or ten years from now."

Lisa Muprhy was named UAA Co-Player of the Year, along with Alexandra Leslie from Rochester.
Carnegie Mellon athletics file photo

This perspective translates freely to her players. When asked if they felt pressure down the stretch, when making the NCAA tournament depended on them winning every game, Poss answered.

"Honestly we didn’t think about it as do or die. We just wanted to finish strong and show who we were. It wasn’t about the tournament or getting into the tournament, because we would have played in the ECACs and had a postseason regardless. Obviously we’re over the moon that we made it, but if we hadn’t made it we still would have played in the postseason. There was no pressure."

That calm and confidence translated into a first round upset of then 26-1 Hope in Holland. The Tartans ran out to a big lead, but the Flying Dutch came back to take a lead with a minute to go. Junior Lisa Murphy, CMU’s leading scorer, hit a clutch free throw to finish off a traditional three point play with five seconds remaining to secure a one-point victory.

"We have a tremendous amount of respect for every opponent," says Murphy, "At the same time we came into this weekend with a mindset that rankings don’t matter because at the end of the game the winner is going to be the one that plays the hardest. Both the Hope and Ohio Northern games came down to the last minute and I think playing in a lot of close, tough games in the UAA allowed us to have the mental toughness to pull out those close games."

While Carnegie Mellon’s rise might surprise many outside the program, this success has been building since Hullah took over the program in 2011. She coached both major and mid-major Division I programs as well as the American Basketball League’s Seattle Reign before spending a decade away from the game.

"When I looked at the different types of experiences I’ve had over my career, the type of experience I most enjoyed was being in an environment where you’re recruiting scholar athletes. They’re absolutely unwilling to compromise academic excellence for athletics and at the same time they don’t want to compromise their athletic experience to go to a great school. When I looked at Carnegie Mellon, all I saw was opportunity. This is a sleeping giant. This has potential. We can come in, recruit, coach, and build a program. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been a lot of fun. It’s very rewarding to be where we are right now. I love it."

Of her coach, Murphy says, "I appreciate her ability to grow the program while growing individual players. She makes everyone on the team feel incredibly valued." Of course, Hullah defers credit, "It’s all about the kids. Coaching is coaching, regardless of what level you’re at. It’s about the players; it’s about the game."

Carnegie Mellon has proven they have the game. They compete in a tough conference and they took down two big-name programs in the first weekend, with two more on the horizon. If they do beat Wash U, they’ll have a likely Saturday matchup with hosts and undefeated defending national champions Thomas More. "We’d love that matchup," says Murphy, "You always want to play the best team you can. We’d love the challenge."

Whatever challenges or successes come their way, the CMU women will be who they are. Says Hullah, "We want to focus on our style of play; we want to focus on Tartan basketball. The thing I challenge the kids with is every day in practice and every game is: are we learning, are we growing, are we improving – are we playing our best basketball? At the end of the day that’s all we really have control of."

"It is such an unselfish group of kids. They make plays for each other, they all have scoring ability, they defend together, they rebound together. They are team first players. It’s really a reflection of who they are as people. They’re very unselfish, they’re very humble, and they’re very competitive. And I love them."

After the season they’ve produced and all the surprises of the past weekend, you can call this Carnegie Mellon squad a lot of things; one thing you probably shouldn’t call them, though, is underdogs.