November 11, 2008
San Antonio-The date was November 24, 2007 and despite Natalie Gamez’s third 20-point game of the season, St. Mary’s University was 1-4 after a 91-72 loss to Concordia University of St. Paul. What transpired over the next three-and-a-half months is the stuff of Hollywood movies, as the Rattlers went from afterthought to Heartland Conference Champions and NCAA South Central Region participants.
Heading into their sixth game of the season, there wasn’t much reason for optimism. The Rattlers had lost by double digits in three of their four losses and were allowing nearly 80 points per game. Conversely on offense, they were scoring less than 70. Coach Jason Martens said the change involved getting back to the fundamentals.
“We changed our focus a little; changed our offensive and defensive mindsets,” Martens recalled. “We decided to focus more on the defensive side of the ball. We tried to play better, more conservative defense. On offense we needed to be more patient.”
So when the Rattlers took the floor against East Central University on Nov. 28, St. Mary’s was ready for a change. But seven minutes into the game, the Rattlers trailed 15-5, prompting a timeout by Martens. He didn’t recall saying anything incredibly inspirational, but the effect was felt regardless. The Rattlers finished the first half on a 36-7 run and picked up their second win of the season, 73-58.
St. Mary’s went on the road for their next three games, defeating Huston-Tillotson in Austin by 11, then took their show to Arkadelphia, Ark., for the Ouachita Baptist University Classic. If there was any doubt this team was back on track, the OBU Classic erased it. The Rattlers reeled off back-to-back blowout wins to take the tournament title and improve to one game over .500. Martens recalled the trip as one of the defining moments for the team.
The Rattlers showed they could do something special when they started a six-game homestand in their toughest tournament of the season: the Lady Rattler Christmas Classic. St. Mary’s faced Hillsdale College and University of Missouri S&T, two teams that would advance to the NCAA Tournament by season’s end. In the opener the Rattlers rolled to a 75-63 win behind hot shooting from all the Rattlers, including freshman Mallory Moeller, who led the team with 17 points. In the finale, Juanita Merchant’s layup with 2.2 seconds left was the difference in a 57-56 win.
Ten days later, the Rattlers returned to their home court and faced Southeastern Oklahoma State University. Moeller took her turn playing the hero as she hit a driving lay-up with 5.5 seconds left to lift the Rattlers to a two-point win. The following day the Rattlers rolled past the University of Montevallo by 19 points to secure their eighth straight win and third tournament title of the season.
The good play continued into the new year as St. Mary’s opened Heartland Conference play with a pair of convincing wins over Lincoln University and Newman University. Those wins extended their win streak to double figures at 10. St. Mary’s hit the road to take on their two biggest rivals next. After a tough 61-55 win over St. Edward’s University in Austin, the Rattlers ground out a two-point win in a defensive battle against the University of the Incarnate Word.
St. Mary’s returned home to post impressive double-digit wins over the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, Oklahoma Panhandle State University and St. Edward’s to improve to 17-5 overall. The streak reached 18 straight games as the Rattlers went on the road to defeat OPSU and UTPB. The Rattlers returned home for the final time and were impressive in sweeping past Incarnate Word and TAMIU, both by double digits.
The Rattlers’ final regular season games produced easy wins over Newman and Lincoln as they extended their win streak to a school-record 22 straight games. The streak also completed their undefeated seasons in Heartland Conference play at 14-0 and at home with a 13-0 mark. That sent the Rattlers to Denton for the Heartland Conference Tournament as the number one seed. Though the Rattlers had won 22 games in a row, their hopes for an appearance in the NCAA Tournament hinged on their play at the conference tournament. The Rattlers entered the tournament ranked seventh in the region, a precarious number, given only the top eight advance and the Heartland Conference did not have an automatic bid.
“I think the team was really aware of not having the automatic bid,” Martens said. “We talked about controlling what you can control and that things would take care of themselves. We had a lot of pressure going into the conference tournament, knowing if we lost, it was over.”
The win was enough to get the Rattlers into the NCAA South Central Regional Tournament in Canyon, where they would face the University of Central Oklahoma. The game was an instant classic, with nine ties, 10 lead changes and so much drama that an overtime period was necessary.
The first half was a shootout, with Natalie Gamez and Rachel Jones combining for 30 points as the Rattlers took a 40-37 lead into the break. Both teams struggled from the field in the second half, but UCO took a four-point lead with eight and a half minutes left. Back came the Rattlers and when Juanita Merchant hit a three-pointer with 27 seconds left, St. Mary’s looked to have the win. However, Micha Hester hit a desperation 30-footer with less than a second left to tie things and send the game into overtime.
Despite the loss, the Rattlers still had one of their best seasons in school history. The 24-game win streak set a new school record, they advanced to the NCAA South Central Region Tournament for the fourth time, posted their second undefeated run through the Heartland Conference and won their fourth Heartland Conference Tournament title.
“It was a great run,” Martens said. “We were picked third in the preseason poll in the conference, and then go undefeated, it’s a great feeling. To grind it out, it shows how competitive our team is. We started 1-4 and we knew that it wasn’t the end-all, be-all, but we knew that we would have to do something special. As the season progressed and we weren’t getting recognition we started playing with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We wanted to prove people wrong.”
The Rattlers did more then just prove people wrong; they picked up the awards to prove it. Gamez was named Heartland Conference Player of the Year, Martens picked up Coach of the Year honors and Moeller earned Freshman of the Year recognition.”
The overtime equaled the intensity of the first 40 minutes with four lead changes and three ties. Merchant again showed her prowess from long range, hitting on back-to-back three-pointers to give the Rattlers a three-point lead with 1:26 left to play. A pair of buckets for the Bronchos gave them the lead back at 73-71 with 34 seconds to play. Gamez scored the last of her 21 points with 18 seconds left to tie things at 73. However Karlie Free’s jumper with two seconds to play lifted the Bronchos to the win. The Rattlers didn’t play like a team with a lot of pressure on them as they crushed OPSU in the first round, 79-59. That sent them into the championship game against St. Edward’s, who took a different tact against the Rattlers. The Hilltoppers turned up the defensive effort and held the Rattlers to their lowest offensive output of the season. However, St. Mary’s did the Hilltoppers one better, holding SEU to just 18.9 percent shooting from the field and 10 made field goals, as the Rattlers won the Heartland crown with a 49-34 victory. “The trip to Arkansas was a good trip for us,” Martens said. “We had two good wins on the road and we hadn’t been good on the road the previous year. After that our team started to believe that maybe they could do something special.”