The University of Richmond's women's basketball team ended its 2008-09 season with a 24-10 overall record.
Many may look back over the season and wonder what might have been, but it proved to be a turning point in the women's program.
During the previous two years, the Spiders had not had much success, ending with a 13-17 record during the 2006-07 season and a 14-17 record during the 2007-08 season. Coach Michael Shafer said he knew things needed to change.
"We needed to work on our team chemistry, not just how we go along, but the chemistry of the team's spirit and wanting to win basketball games," he said.
The overall goals of the team never changed, Shafer said, but the process by which the team attempted to attain the goals did. Everyone had to get on the program's page, not their own, he said.
Shafer said he wanted a winning attitude. He brought in four freshmen that were all part of state championship-winning teams and said he hoped that their attitudes, combined with the college experience of the returning players, could spark a change.
The acronym CHIPS was developed by Shafer as a constant reminder to the players of what it was they were trying to achieve. Competitive, Hard-working, Invested, Pride, Sacrifice. Shafer told the players that they had chips on their shoulders, in a positive way, and it was time to prove that they were a good basketball team.
"It wasn't a hard sell," he said. "They bought into it, and it was the neatest thing."
In October the team was playing well, Shafer said, but then it started to fight the philosophy. It took a breaking point at one practice and a running session before the challenge was set.
"We decided, after that, we had to raise our standards and have accountability for our actions," junior Danielle Bell said.
Shafer said he wanted the team to start to take more responsibility and to question what was preventing its success.
"After that, we won eight-straight games," he said. Things kept building from there, and the players were enthusiastic about one another's success, he said.
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On Jan. 3, the Spiders took on the then 14/16 ranked University of Maryland Terrapins and lost the game, 83-65, having led by four with 12:40 left during the game. Bell looked back at the game and said that even though they had lost, the team knew it could "hang" with the big-time teams.
The next game was the final non-conference game, at home against No. 25 Wake Forest University. The Spiders didn't just hang, they won, putting the Demon Deacons away 45-33.
Things got even better. Conference play opened up against the George Washington University Colonials, Richmond's rival and "thorn in the side," Shafer said. The Spiders beat GW, 66-65, and then repeated the feat a month later, winning 55-49 to secure the first sweep of the Colonials in school history.
However, in between the two wins, the Spiders suffered a series of injuries to key players in a game against Duquesne University, including sophomore Brittani Shells who broke a finger, and freshman Samantha Bilney, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament.
"The bus ride home was a long one," Bell said. "You could let it all fall apart or keep playing and we decided to keep playing."
The team had nine able players out of a squad of 14.
"The beauty of it all was the inner confidence within them," Shafer said, "that they knew whoever was on the floor they could win." And they did.
The Spiders went 9-5 in Atlantic 10 play and secured a first-round bye during the A-10 tournament for the first time. After a 64-48 quarterfinal win over University of Rhode Island, the Spiders returned to semifinal action for the first time since 2005.
In a dramatic midday game in Charlotte, N.C., the Spiders came back from a 19-point deficit against the University of Dayton Flyers to win by six and advance to their first-ever A-10 championship game.
"A culmination of everything we wanted was in those last 15 minutes," Shafer said.
Shells said that the win had been a highlight of the season.
Bell said, "I just remember screaming and yelling and having fun. Everyone was hyped-up."
But things didn't go as planned during the final against the University of North Carolina -Charlotte 49ers. The Spiders lost 59-54.
"We made it further than a lot of people expected," Bell said.
Getting to the A-10 championship game and losing provided fuel for the team to strive further, Shells said.
"We didn't want the same season as the past two years," she said. "Our plan was to have a winning season."
The Spiders lost out on a bid into the NCAA tournament, which Bell said was very disappointing.
"It was kind of sad, a quiet moment where no one said anything," she said.
But Shells was philosophical about it.
"A year ago, we weren't even in the selection, looking to see if we got in," she said.
Instead, the Spiders moved onto post-season play in the Women's National Invitational Tournament.
"We practiced our best practice that Tuesday," Shafer said. "We didn't linger on anything."
The Spiders beat the James Madison University Dukes, 59-57, before falling to Georgetown University 65-49 during the third round.
Looking back over the season, Shells said that seeing Bilney get injured, losing during the A-10 championship, not getting to the end of the WNIT's and losing two seniors were the toughest times.
"But there's more good than bad when you look back at it," she said. "We're learning as we go."
Looking forward, Shafer said he knew the areas in which the team needed to improve.
"We've got to get bigger and stronger and more aggressive," he said. "If we can find a way to attack and score more points, we will have a special year ahead. This team has set the foundation for that."
Contact reporter Sarah Blythe-Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org
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