Milligan College women’s basketball coach Rich Aubrey says he hopes to do just that at the beginning of every season as his Lady Buffaloes travel to the Hawkeye state for the NAIA national tournament this week.
Milligan (26-6) will play in the first round Thursday against St. Francis (Ill.) in a No. 4- versus No. 5-seed matchup. The Fighting Saints are also ranked No. 14 nationally.
“I sometimes joke to people that my goal every year is to spend spring break in Sioux City,” Aubrey said. “Some people chuckle at that, but once you’ve had the experience, you understand how special the event really is.”
This will be the third trip to the national tournament for Milligan in four years. The Lady Buffs missed the tournament in 2018.
Milligan under Aubrey has advanced to the Sweet 16 twice in eight trips.
ABOUT ST. FRANCIS
The Fighting Saints (23-8) are coached by one of the all-time winningest coaches in NAIA women’s basketball Steve Brooks. He currently ranks fourth on the list with 514 career wins.
Oddly enough, Aubrey ranks fifth on the all-time list with 507 wins, and the matchup is between a No. 4 seeded St. Francis team and a No. 5 seeded Milligan.
St. Francis won the regular season title in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference and have won four of its last five games going into the big dance.
The Fighting Saints finished their season in the exact same way as Milligan, losing in the semifinals of the conference tournament and earned a bid via winning the regular season title.
St. Francis is led by six-foot junior post player Kaitlin Aylward, who is averaging 17.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. She was named to the CCAC first team all conference for her exploits.
“I have great respect for Steve. He has been a very successful coach on a national level in the NAIA for years now,” Aubrey said. “We know we’re going to be up against a well-coached team.
“They’re quick and they do some things that are similar to what we do on offense. They spread the floor and cut well. They play well without the ball, and as a team, they shoot the 3-pointer very well. They’re going to create some challenges for us on offense. We’re going to have to play really solid defense.”
WHAT MILLIGAN NEEDS TO DO TO WIN
It was probably a good omen for the Lady Buffs when they saw they were playing Thursday. When Milligan has played in the tournament’s first round on Thursday, they have won twice.
Milligan has been solid on the defensive end all season and are one of the highest scoring teams in the Appalachian Athletic Conference, ranking behind only Bryan.
Senior Sarah Robinson has been the focal point of the offense and has played several different roles over her four years as a Lady Buff. She’s been a scoring machine, racking up over 1,500 points, and has been tough to handle on the boards as well, hauling down over 1,000 rebounds.
This year, she has been more of a distributor and has gotten her teammates involved in the offense as well. Aubrey says that Robinson will need to replicate her two previous performances from Iowa if they are to have a chance to advance.
“To succeed at this level, we have to make some shots,” he said. “Part of that comes from executing on offense. We need to move the ball, share the ball and attack the post. We don’t want to put ourselves in a position where we stand around and hold the ball. When we create opportunities in the post, that leads to opportunities on the perimeter and we have to make some of them.”
OFF THE COURT
“Sioux City is almost a perfect venue for this event,” he said. “The city is big enough and they have plenty of hotels and restaurants to handle the influx of people coming with 32 teams from around the country.
“It’s small enough that really roll out the red carpet. It feels like everyone in Sioux City knows why you’re there. They’re very welcoming of all the teams.”
Aubrey says that his team will make a few local elementary school visits like they did in the previous two trips to Iowa. They will likely see some of the same children as well.
“They also host a Special Olympics basketball clinic, which we’ve done a lot locally. We get the chance to do that out in Iowa and that’s always a special event,” he said. “It’s a great event in terms of making our student-athletes feel special. I look forward to that every year.”
LEAVING A LEGACY
Aubrey said that around this time four years ago when the current senior class were all freshman, they made the goal of getting to the tournament all four years.
Had it not been for an up-and-down 18-13 season last year, the goal would come true.
“The thing that I really appreciate about this group is the way they balance basketball and academics,” he said. “This team has had unprecedented academic success.
“We have a huge number of academic all-conference performers and eight Daktronics scholar athletes, which is the equivalent of academic All-American. They represent us every day on the court and in the classroom. I’m very grateful for what they’ve done in those terms.”
SURVIVE AND ADVANCE
The Lady Buffs will tip off with St. Francis on Thursday at the Tyson Events Center at 11:15 a.m. The winner will meet the victor of a game between No. 1 seed Dakota Wesleyan and No. 8 seed St. Thomas on Friday at 4:30 p.m.
Dakota Wesleyan is ranked No. 4 nationally.