Navy relieved to be a No. 15 seed, faces Kentucky in first round

The Baltimore Sun

The first cheer erupted among the Navy women's basketball players when they saw that another team would face top-seeded Connecticut in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

The second cheer went up when the Midshipmen saw they weren't going for the second straight year to College Park, where they lost last year to Maryland.

But the biggest cheer was saved for last during Monday night's tournament selection viewing party at an Annapolis restaurant, coming when Navy (21-11) learned it was a 15th seed in the Bridgeport (Conn.) Region going to play No. 2 Kentucky (27-5) Sunday in Queens, N.Y.

Those three cheers were equal to the number of consecutive NCAA appearances the Midshipmen have now made under fifth-year coach Stefanie Pemper.

"I definitely didn't think we were one of the four weakest teams in the bracket," Pemper said. "I didn't think we should get a 16 [seed] but you can't always control it when you are in the 14s, 15s and 16s range. A lot of times they do geography, and I think they did do geography a little bit with us going to New York."

Junior forward Jade Geif said she and her teammates had seen the mock brackets predicting that the Midshipmen would play Connecticut, and she seemed relieved they weren't.

"As much as the excitement there would have been to play them, we would like to have a little more of a chance to pull out a victory," Geif said.

Though Navy won't face an iconic program such as Connecticut, Kentucky will be tough enough. Pemper compared the seventh-ranked Wildcats to the Maryland team Navy faced last year. The Midshipmen lost to the Terps, 59-44, after a relatively close first half.

"It's a really, really strong opponent," Pemper said. "They're going to be challenging the way that Maryland was, and not in the way DePaul was [in 2011 when the Midshipmen lost by 13 in the opening round.] They're deep, they're tall, they're long. They're super athletic."

Said junior guard Alix Membreno, "I've never seen Kentucky play, obviously they got a 2 seed so they're going to be a great team. I think it's a really good opportunity to play. The higher the seed gets, I feel like there's less for us to lose. We're going to give it our all."

If Navy upstes Kentucky it would face either 10th-seeded St. John's or No. 7 Dayton for a berth in the Sweet 16.

Asked if the experience is as exciting as the past two years, Membreno said, "Definitely. I think it's exciting in different ways. Each [Patriot League] championship is different. It's a different feel, it's a different team, it's a different vibe. It's nice that it's not something new this time. It's not that it's something we're getting used to, but we've been in this position before."

Geif said that as much as the Navy team is now used to a high level of success under Pemper — the Midshipmen are only the second Patriot League women's team to go to three straight NCAA tournaments — the excitement of watching the nationally televised selection show never gets old.

"You can just feel the nerves watching the TV watching for the thing to flip over and show Navy and see who you're playing," Geif said. "Even walking over here, everyone was so hyped."

The Midshipmen feel as if they have a chance to pull off an upset.

"Every year we always feel like we have a chance," Geif said. "If we stick with them till the last couple of minutes we have a chance. It's March Madness for a reason. We know what it feels like, we know how difficult this game is going to be and how much of a challenge it's going to be. But we know it's definitely possible. ... Why not us?"

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