Falcons hoping to take flight come March Madness

Updated: March 2, 2007, 12:55 PM ET
By Beth Mowins | Special to ESPN.com

Back to work.

Ali Mann
AP Photo/Jerry LaiSenior forward Ali Mann, who scores a team-high 15 ppg, credits the Falcons' chemistry and family atmosphere for their success.

That's the attitude at Bowling Green this week after a stunning loss at home to Ohio University on Saturday. Such is life among mid-majors in the college basketball world. You have to expect the unexpected. And you have to be ready to handle the pressure of knowing that one loss could be the only one that matters to the NCAA women's selection committee.

"We know who we are," said coach Curt Miller, whose Falcons' 18-game win streak ended with Saturday's 70-67 loss to the Bobcats. "We are a mid-major and we know 10 people sitting in a room in Indianapolis in a couple of weeks will control our destiny. Every mid-major in America knows that the only way to ensure you get invited is to win your conference tournament."

Despite the loss, No. 16 Bowling Green has time to regroup and will still be favored to win the Mid-American tournament, which begins Sunday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, site of the Final Four.

"Our body of work will be scrutinized by the selection committee," said Miller, whose team had owned the nation's best home-court winning streak (29 games) and a MAC-record 39-game conference win streak before Saturday's loss. "As a mid-major you never feel safe. It's different from a BCS conference. Yes, those schools may face a ranked opponent every other game, but they also know they will have several chances to get quality wins. The mid-majors have it tough because we know one bad night can ruin the year and one bad loss at the wrong time can end your season."

The Falcons' body of work seems to be good enough that the Ohio loss will not shake the program's entire foundation. It might have dampened spirits around campus for the night, but there is still a special feeling around town, and around the country, about this team.

"I think BG has the potential to go deep into the NCAA Tournament," says Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, whose Blue Devils edged the Falcons 55-46 back in December. "They spread the floor and all five players can hit the 3 or penetrate. They are well-coached and play with a high IQ It will be difficult to prepare for them in a short period of time and they have experience, so they won't be awed or intimidated."

How good is Bowling Green? Well, only Tennessee and North Carolina have come closer to toppling undefeated Duke than the Falcons did in that nine-point loss. And Bowling Green was the only team to hold a second-half lead over Duke before Sunday, when the Tar Heels had a slight advantage after the break.

The experience that Goestenkors mentioned is a starting lineup that includes four seniors and a junior. They have been an integral part of the Falcons' transformation under Miller, who's in his fifth season as BG's head coach. The senior class has progressed from winning 12 games as freshmen to a 25-3 campaign this season (Miami visits for the regular-season finale on Wednesday).

Besides Duke and Ohio, the only other loss came early in the year, in overtime at Notre Dame, which finished near the top of the Big East.

"I love the Bowling Green team," Fighting Irish coach Muffett McGraw said. "With the experience and the chemistry they have they rarely make mistakes. And with scorers at all five positions on the floor they can be hard to guard. Someone will have their hands full in the NCAA Tournament with them."

The Falcons are one of the feel-good stories of the season because of who they are and what they could be. They are a blue-collar group of players who are not the most talented individuals in the nation, but collectively they are capable of great things. They embody an "everywoman" quality that is endearing to fans looking for an underdog to root for. They are "The Little Engine that Could."

It starts with six seniors, three of whom have been in the starting lineup since stepping on campus.

"They will score over 5,000 points as a group before they leave here," said Miller, whose Falcons are gunning for a third straight automatic bid. "They are all fiercely competitive and they hate to lose. They just seem to find a way to win. The seniors pay great attention to detail. They have always liked the film room and practices and don't mind putting in the work behind the scenes."

Senior center Liz Honegger has started more games in a Bowling Green uniform than anyone in the history of the program. She is an undersized 5-foot-11 post who can also score from the perimeter. Honegger is believed to be the only player in Division I history to be her school's career leader in 3-point field goals and blocked shots.

"We're very close on and off the court," said Honegger, who didn't start her first game as a freshman but has not missed a start in four years since. "Great chemistry helps the success on the court. The seniors came in together and we bought into what Coach Miller believed could happen here. He expects so much from us and we rise up to that challenge."

Senior forward Ali Mann leads the Falcons in scoring with 15 points per game, one of five players averaging double figures. She has been right beside Honegger in the starting lineup for four years and will finish in the Falcons' top five in career scoring and rebounding.

"We're so close it's like a family here," Mann said. "We do everything together and we pride ourselves on having the best locker room in the nation."

The senior class includes the team's steals leader, Carin Horne, and the Falcons' best free-throw shooter in Megan Thorburn. Amber Flynn comes off the bench to provide a spark and is one of the most improved players in the MAC. Junior Kate Achter starts at point guard and is on pace to surpass 500 career assists next season.

Six of the Falcons, including Honegger and Mann, live together in a duplex. They host team parties and get-togethers. They bond on Thursday nights by watching their beloved "Grey's Anatomy." And they pile into cars for the 30-minute drive up to Toledo for the weekly team dinner at the aptly named Bravo's Italian restaurant.

It's just the kind of family Miller envisioned putting together when he arrived in Bowling Green from his job at Colorado State as an assistant coach. He has followed the blueprint former Rams coach Tom Collen used in Fort Collins, Colo.

"At CSU we had a really good team with Becky Hammon and Katie Cronin," Miller said. "We were ranked in the top five and we got a No. 2 seed in the NCAA one year. I saw firsthand that you could build a nationally competitive team at this level."

One of the lessons he learned was that the mid-majors weren't going to get the top talent. So you had to recruit the best intangibles to compete with BCS schools.

"It's hard to land a 6-5 low-post player here in the shadow of the Big Ten," admitted Miller, whose starting lineup does not include a player taller than 6-1. "But we could get blue-collar kids that worked hard and loved to compete. We needed versatility and we needed players who could shoot well."

Before Bowling Green could play together on the court, Miller knew they would have to get along together off of it.

"I heard [former NBA superstar] David Robinson speak a few years ago," Miller said. "Robinson said that you have to build a championship team in the locker room before you can put a championship team on the floor. That really hit home for me because I believe team chemistry is especially important in women's basketball. We've passed on some talented players that may not have been very good teammates. You have to mesh well and have fun, and our players have done that."

And the fun has spread across campus and around town. The Falcons are the most recognizable faces in Bowling Green these days and play before big crowds at Anderson Arena, also know as "The House That Roars."

"It amazing to see all the attention," Mann said. "We have a student section now. That's never happened before. They call themselves the Anderson Animals and they show up with painted faces and orange wigs. They are practically right on the court making a lot of noise. It's like a dream come true. I never imagined any of this."

Added Miller: "It's been a storybook four years for these seniors. When we recruited them, they each had something they could not do well, whether they were too small or too slow. But we didn't want to find faults, we wanted to find a gem. They worked hard and had great versatility."

That versatility is on display whenever the Falcons take the court.

"We've got five players on the floor that are offensively talented," said Honegger, one of four players who has hit at least 30 3-pointers this season. "We have good range from our shooters and we have players like Horne and Achter that can dribble penetrate. You have to be prepared to guard all five of us."

That's what could make Bowling Green so dangerous in the postseason. The Falcons are experienced and have the ability to score from anywhere on the court. And they have learned from NCAA Tournament losses in the first round each of the last two years.

"I've probably grown the most from the early exits from the NCAA," Miller said. "I need to bring the same energy and the same intensity that we coach and play with all year long. We watched the George Mason men make it to the Final Four last year and that is our rallying cry. We ask ourselves, 'Why can't we do it, too?' Why can't we be like Western Kentucky or Southwest Missouri State on the women's side? They've gone deep into the tournament before."

Western Kentucky and Southwest Missouri State were at the Final Four together in 1992. But since then, only five non-BCS schools have reached the Final Four -- and none have advanced that far in the last five years.

The odds are even greater against a MAC team. The conference has an NCAA Tournament record of 5-27 and has never had a team reach the Sweet 16. Bowling Green is focused on winning the MAC title and then perhaps making some NCAA history.

"Even though we lost to Duke and Notre Dame, we were very energized by the result," Miller said. "It gave us confidence against the BCS schools. We realized we could compete and we could do well against them. Hopefully we'll get a shot to prove ourselves again in March. It's a fun position to be in, to get to be the underdog again."

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Beth Mowins

Women's Basketball
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

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