Packed into Pilot House right in the middle of campus, the University of Portland Pilots heard words years in the making as ESPN’s Elle Duncan called their name as a 12-seed in the Greenville 1 Region.
Pilots take the 12th seed playing vs Oklahoma pic.twitter.com/LJYQquP3aa— Portland Pilots Women's Basketball (@PortlandWBB) March 13, 2023
“That feeling was surreal,” junior forward Alex Fowler said. “It was insane to have that, the watch party. Our seniors were talking about that was what we looked forward to our freshman year, and we never got that. So, it was really, really fun to be able to do that. You always watch teams get up and celebrate on the TV and all that, and we were one of those teams that got to do that.”
The 2023 WCC champions also punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament in 2020 by winning the conference title but never participated as March Madness was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Going full circle is really what it is for this 2020 group,” senior guard Haylee Andrews said. “The consistency and hard work that all the new players have brought in and even the players that came in after 2020, during the COVID year. I think it’s always been a goal to win the WCC every year, and this year we had the right team to do it because we do have a lot of talent on the team, and everyone contributed in different ways.”
Fowler and Andrews were two of the five players who were on both championship teams along with Keeley Frawley, Liana Kaitu’u and Kelsey Lenzie. That core group of players made it their mission to experience the NCAA Tournament before their careers came to a close.
“To be able to do it with the five seniors and the coaching staff and everyone that was there our first year and knew the pain that we went through, it was an amazing feeling to be able to go there and to get the experience of the Tournament,” Fowler said.
The forward was named WCC Tournament MVP in both 2020 and 2023. She, Andrews and Frawley are from Australia, and the opportunity to play in March Madness marked a seminal moment for their careers.
“You’re on the big stage,” Fowler said. “You’ve got teams all around the nation, all around the world are watching this. This is a huge tournament that we grew up watching back home, and you’d be stunned at the teams and the talent and the athleticism. We finally got to experience it, and it was such a fun ride.”
In the Big Dance, the Pilots played Oklahoma, a No. 5 seed, who has been to 21 of the last 23 NCAA Tournaments. The Sooners prevailed 85-63, which marked an end to Portland’s season with a 23-9 record.
“To me, it was almost like a huge relief for our athletes that had won it the first time that didn’t have a chance and then they came back and just earned that chance to go before they were done playing,” Portland head coach Michael Meek said. “They basically had one more shot together to try to get back there, and they found a way to get it done. That’s just kind of the mark of how much they care about each other and the competitiveness they have.”
The Pilots punched their ticket to March Madness with a 64-60 win over top-seed Gonzaga in the WCC championship game. They overcame an 11-point halftime deficit and surged into the lead by scoring 12 straight late in the third quarter.
Portland found itself in a similar spot against the Zags three years earlier too. In the 2020 semifinals, Gonzaga led by 15 after the first quarter, but the Pilots stormed back to claim a 70-69 win to advance to the title game, where they prevailed by one in overtime against San Diego.
“I see similarities between that team and this year’s team,” Fowler said. “We were drawn into what we needed to do to get that win. [Winning the championship] was just such an amazing feeling. I forgot what that feeling was like. When we were at the WCC in Vegas after we won, we were all saying: ‘oh my gosh we did it again.’ It’s crazy. It’s insane.”
Prior to these runs, the last time the program reached the NCAA Tournament was 1997, the fourth straight year they went dancing.
In each of Meek’s four years guiding the Pilots, they have qualified for the postseason. In between the two WCC titles and NCAA Tournament berths, they advanced to the WBI championship game in 2021 and the 2022 WNIT second round.
“I think [missing out on the 2020 NCAA Tournament] became harder for the coaches and more importantly the athletes as time went on,” Meek said. “You start realizing how hard it would be to get back.
“We had a chance to get in the Tournament now, and I think we can be more competitive in the Tournament. That’s obviously the goal moving forward: to start learning how to not only get back but also to win games in the Tournament. That’s where we want to get to next.”