SEATTLE — The lobby of the O’Brien Center on Seattle University’s campus was packed so tight Monday afternoon that latecomers found themselves sidling in the door sideways.
Athletic department staff, Redhawks student-athletes, long-time boosters and other well-wishers jamed themselves in anyway to witness a historic moment: the Seattle U women’s basketball team finding out where they would play in the first Division I NCAA Tournament game in program history.
With athletic director Shaney Fink in the back of the room and Seattle U President, Father Stephen Sundborg, seated next to Seattle U coach Suzy Barcomb two rows from the TV tuned to ESPN’s selection show, the Redhawks sat and waited.
Barcomb and her players heaved an audible sigh of relief when they realized a cross-country trip to play powerhouse No. 1 seed UConn was not in their future — that dubious privilege befell 16th-seeded St. Francis.
They tutted empathetically when ESPN aired a segment on how Notre Dame lost four players to ACL injuries and groaned in unison at the broadcaster’s bad pun – “You certainly can’t spell ‘miracle’ without A-C-L.”
Then, came the historic moment.
The Redhawks saw their name and their first-round NCAA Tournament matchup flash on the screen — No. 15 Seattle U vs. No. 2 Oregon — and a cacophony of cheers drowned out the television as the players leaped to their feet in excitement and exchanged hugs and high fives.
“My palms were sweating, I was super nervous,” said senior forward Jacinta Beckley. “We were hoping for Oregon, so it’s super excited to see that we got the team we wanted to play.”
The Redhawks (18-14) were hoping to stay on the West Coast and end up in either Eugene or Palo Alto. If they manage to get out of their Eugene pod, they’ll advance to the Spokane regional.
“It’s less of a trip, it’s regional, we know Stanford and the Ducks, and we get to have a fan base because so many of our kids are from California,” Barcomb said.
The trip to Eugene will also be something of a homecoming for Alexis Montgomery, the Redhawks’ leading scorer, and a Beaverton native.
“My dad was hoping we would play Oregon because it’s only an hour and a half drive away, so we should have lots of support and lots of good energy coming from the northwest.” Montgomery said. “It’s super exciting. I can’t really describe it with words. We’re super grateful we just have the opportunity to play more than the regular season.
That it happened in the second year of Barcomb’s tenure at Seattle U is even more incredible.
Barcomb came to Seattle U in April 2016, and was known for her prowess as a program builder. She’s led her two previous teams – Puget Sound and Cal State East Bay — to lower level NCAA tournaments, and getting to the NCAA tournament was the goal when she took over at Seattle U.
Barcomb got off to a surprisingly fast start by taking the Redhawks to the WAC Tournament final in her first season, then built on that success this season, delivering a WAC Tournament title, and the NCAA berth that comes with it.
Now, she can say she’s been to the NCAA tournament at the Division I, II and III levels.
“It’s remarkable,” Sundborg said. “It’s a new era at Seattle U. We’ve got a great operation going, and it’s really something to do it in the second year.”
On Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., eight years after Seattle U transitioned to Division I, and 41 years since the inception of the women’s basketball program, the WAC champion Redhawks will take the floor in the NCAA tournament for the first time ever against the Pac-12 champion Ducks (30-4).
It’s a milestone moment that will go down in Seattle U’s history books.
“We’re on our way back,” said a glowing Sundborg. “We’ve been Division I for eight years, and it’s been our biggest moment so far. It opens a window onto our university (for) a much wider part if America. It gives people a chance to see what our university is, and we’re really excited about that.”