Despite prestigious program, Green Bay gets little recognition

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Connecticut, Stanford and Green Bay.

It’s the somewhat mind-blowing answer to the trivia question: Which NCAA Division I women’s basketball teams rank in the top three in winning percentage in the past five seasons.

Connecticut and Stanford, sure. But Green Bay?

That lesser-known Midwestern school might stump even the most diehard women’s basketball fan.

The Phoenix, who hail from the mid-major Horizon League and are winners of 15 consecutive regular-season conference titles, have won 89.3 percent of its game in the past half decade, going a remarkable 176-21.

Green Bay will put its 24-game winning streak on the line Sunday when it faces LSU in a NCAA tournament first-round game in Baton Rouge.

“I think a lot of outsiders see us maybe as a mid-major and that’s all we can ever be, but we’ve always accepted that challenge and those doubters,” senior guard Adrian Ritchie said. “We may not get the national media attention as the other teams do, but we like to win and we’ve shown we can do that here.”

The Phoenix, ranked No. 20 by The Associated Press, is one of five team this season to have two or fewer losses. The Green Bay players said they should be in the conversation as one of the top programs in the country year in and year out.

“I think we’ve earned it and we’ve proven ourselves, not only in our conference but also on the national stage in the tournament the last three years,” senior forward Lydia Bauer said.

Green Bay has qualified for the NCAA tournament 13 of the past 16 years, but sports just a 6-12 record in those postseason contests. However, in the past three years, the Phoenix has gone 4-3 and knocked off two higher seeds. In 2011, Green Bay advanced to the Sweet 16 before bowing out to top-seeded Baylor. Last season, the Phoenix nearly beat No. 2 Kentucky to make a return trip to the round of 16.

Even with all of Green Bay’s regular-season and postseason accolades, the NCAA selection committee seems to slight the Phoenix every year when it comes down to seeding. In 2010, the Phoenix received a No. 12 seed and upset fifth-seeded Virginia. The next year, Green Bay entered the NCAA tournament with a 32-1 record and was given a No. 5 seed and advanced to the third round. The Phoenix came into the NCAA tournament in 2012 with a 30-1 record and got seeded seventh.

This season, Green Bay finished 29-2 after starting 5-2. Despite not losing a game since Dec. 5 and winning all 19 of its Horizon League games during the regular season and postseason tournament, the Phoenix was given a disappointing No. 11 seed.

“When the NCAA tournament comes around, we always have that chip on our shoulder just because we come from the Horizon League — it’s not the Big Ten, it’s not the Big 12, it’s not the SEC,” senior forward Sarah Eichler said. “But I think that the competition in our conference this year has definitely prepared us for bigger games.”

Ritchie said her and her teammates aren’t going to dwell on the double-digit seed, they are just going to play the underdog role like they like they do every year.

“Seeds matter for about five minutes, I feel like,” Ritchie said. “Some people said we could have gotten a 6 and then you’d play an 11, anyway. It’s like, is it the same game, just different numbers?”

With past success in the tournament, a one-and-done postseason run isn’t what Green Bay is expecting.

“We’re not a team that’s just happy to be there, that’s not the accomplishment for us,” Ritchie said. “We like hanging banners that say more than the first round, especially the senior class — we’ve never lost in the first round.”

The Phoenix has won its last three first-round NCAA tournament games.

The last time the team had an opening-round exit? Well, it was to LSU in the 2009 tournament. The Tigers won the game, 69-59, in Baton Rouge. The Phoenix was a No. 11 seed and the Tigers were the No. 6 — the same seeds the two teams were given this season.

“I think that’s experience that we’re very grateful for and I think the senior class, that only gives us more motivation to win our first-round game this year,” said Bauer about the streak of winning first-round games. “I think it calms our nerves, too, being able to know that we’ve been here before, we’ve done this and that. We’re very capable of winning.”