Nov. 6, 2013
Several thousand college basketball games are played every year, with games seemingly being contested every night of the season starting in early November. However, one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the calendar year for the sport doesn't involve a ball, a hoop, or a referee, and it is held on a day in which there are no games scheduled. It actually is not a game at all. Instead, it is that mid-March night when the field for the NCAA Tournament is revealed via national television.
Intently watching these broadcasts at celebratory parties are players, coaches and fans of teams who know their school's name will be unveiled that evening. All gather together to watch the telecast and learn which "Road to the NCAA Tournament" they soon will be traveling on.
A selection show party to watch the pairings has been held to honor the members of the Navy women's basketball team in each of the past three years. This is due to the program winning Patriot League Tournament titles in 2011, `12 and `13, thereby guaranteeing Navy a berth in the program's first, second and third, respectively, NCAA Tournaments in school history.
An identical and concurrent gathering nearly 1,000 miles away from downtown Annapolis also has been held over the last several years for the Green Bay women's basketball team. The Phoenix have, in fact, made the last five NCAA Tournaments by virtue of their winning the Horizon League Tournament annually since 2009.
Even though the attendees at the respective parties knew "NAVY" and "GREEN BAY" were both assured of popping up on the televisions in front of them at some point in the evening, seeing their school's name officially part of March Madness still led to a raucous moment when it finally did. But so too did the announcement of the other, if only by the players of the two teams. These additional expressions of exuberance may have been puzzling to the casual fan, until they understood a family tie of siblings was binding the players attending an institution located on the shoreline of the Severn River in America's Sailing Capital with a school placed alongside the Fox River in Titletown, U.S.A.
"Everyone on our team was almost as excited to see where Green Bay would be playing as they would our game," said Audrey Bauer, the middle child of the family who is entering her senior season at Navy, "and even looking for the long-shot chance that we would play each other! It added another layer of excitement to the whole experience with us cheering for Green Bay and knowing they were cheering for us in Wisconsin."
"I think it was so special for both of our teams to have automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament three years in a row," said Lydia Bauer, the eldest child who completed her career at Green Bay this spring. "My teammates and coaches always cheered for Navy because they knew the connection I had. And if UWGB was announced first (during the selection show), my team would wait with me to hear the announcement of where Navy was playing. I was always more excited to hear where Navy would be playing instead of my own team."
The seeds for the sisters to someday play in the NCAA Tournament were planted at a very early age. Basketball had been part of their lives from the time they were born.
"When they were little," recalled Andy, the father of the family, "we fenced in an area in our unfinished basement and put a Michael Jordan Jr. Jammer in the pen. They took to it like bees to honey."
"There are pictures of my sister and I when we were really young trying to stuff a basketball into a bucket," said Audrey.
Their mother, Rachel, who played four years of basketball at UW Milwaukee, took the girls with her to the basketball camps she ran as the coach at Wheeling High School in Wheeling, Ill. Once Wheeling's season began, Andy would take the family -- which also includes a son, Jerry, a freshman on the football team at Washington University of St. Louis -- to the team's games.
When they became old enough to be on teams of their own, Audrey, younger by about a year and a half, played on a team slightly older than her age so she could be on the same team as Lydia. The two were teammates on every team starting when Audrey was in the fourth grade. And though both admitted that basketball began simply as a fun activity the two could do together, it didn't take long for the sport to envelope each of them.
"If I had to pinpoint a specific time when I thought, `Wow, Audrey is pretty good at this,' it would have to be when we were in middle school and playing in an AAU game together," remembered Lydia. "As her older sister, I was always really hard on her and pushed her to be the best basketball player she could. During this game she played really well and I remember thinking that she was a great basketball player and would do great in high school and college if she wanted to continue playing."
"In the seventh grade," said Audrey, "we had our first AAU experience. That was the beginning of it becoming more serious, something I really wanted to do, something I can do in college."
The Naval Academy entered Audrey's mind as a junior at Lake Zurich High School. She had caught the eye of the Navy coaches while playing for the Illinois Hustle, a prominent AAU team that regularly sent players to the top college teams in the country.
"Even though she hadn't been a star on her AAU team, we still really wanted her," said Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper. "We felt there was a lot underneath the surface that watching her once or twice we may not have seen, but we trusted that there was more there than meets the eye.
"At the end of the dinner on her official visit we said to her, `What do you think?' Her dad was with her and her dad looked at her and she looked at her dad and he said, `Tell them what you think.' We were not expecting this, but Audrey said, `This is where I want to be.' We thought she would say something like it was fun and she had a nice time. Instead we went, `Ahhh, GREAT!'"
"I came to Navy on an official visit at the start of my senior year," said Audrey. "I just fell in love with everything here."
"To be honest, when I heard she was going to Navy my first thought was that I was really happy that she was blessed to continue playing basketball and my second thought was, `My sister Audrey is going to be in the military?'" said Lydia. "Audrey's personality is bigger than life and something I thought probably wouldn't be the best cut out for military life, but she has proved me wrong. Not only has she made the commitment to play basketball but she also has made a commitment to serve our country. For this I am very proud of her and believe she has grown into a strong, beautiful young woman."
Audrey arrived on The Yard for Plebe Summer in 2010. It was during this time that she bonded with the rest of the basketball recruiting class -- Jade Geif, Alix Membreno, M.L. Morrison and Kara Pollinger -- one that would play a vital role in the success of the program starting as soon as they stepped onto the Alumni Hall court that fall.
The theme for the team that season was to play for the two seniors on the squad, Angela Myers and Cassie Consedine. The two saw their freshman season end with the team's 23rd loss in 30 games that year. Sending them out on a better note than they started on became a rallying cry for the 2010-11 squad.
"The seniors on the team did a great job of welcoming the freshmen and making us a part of the team right away," recalled Audrey. "I think as freshmen we were focused on taking it one game at a time and doing the best we could in each game. A big theme for that year was playing for our seniors and giving them the best year they could possibly have."
Geif and Membreno were regulars in the starting lineup that year, while Bauer and Pollinger provided valuable minutes off the bench. The team gelled immediately and not only shared the regular season title in the Patriot League for just the second time in school history (1998), but also entered the postseason as the No. 1 seed in the event for the first time.
Navy made its top seed hold up in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, which meant the Mids would play host to American in the championship game. American had shared the regular season title with Navy and advanced to the title game with a road win over Lehigh, the two-time defending tournament champions who had rounded out the triumvirate of teams to lay claim to a piece of that year's regular season crown. Additionally, the Eagles had defeated Navy in the semifinal round of the 2010 tournament before losing in the title game to the Mountain Hawks.
That veteran experience may have aided American in the early going of the title game as the Eagles connected on their first four shots from the floor in jumping out to an 11-3 lead and taking a 30-18 advantage at the break. But the opening minutes of the second half showcased a reversal of fortunes for the two teams. It took just over six minutes of playing time for Navy to chop away at the deficit and take its first lead of the game at 34-32. The teams played to a near standstill over the ensuing minutes until the score was knotted at 39 with a little more than four minutes showing on the clock.
After a missed shot by American, Myers started the ensuing possession for the Mids with the ball on the right side of the court. As she slowly dribbled back to the middle of the court to dip into the free throw lane, the player guarding Bauer on the left wing sagged into the lane to stop Myers. Seeing this, Bauer nonchalantly stepped backward so she was behind the three-point line. Also seeing these concurrent moves was Myers, who flipped the ball to a very wide-open Bauer. The freshman, playing in the biggest game of her career to date, calmly caught the ball before quickly arcing it over a lunging defender and directly through the twine of the net. That triple ignited a game-closing 8-1 run by Navy that sent the Mids into the first NCAA Tournament in program history.
"In that American game," said Pemper, "we had Cassie and she was a post player who took a lot of threes, so Audrey could run Cassie's position in a lot of plays. We had a play and inserted Cassie's name after it. It didn't take long for me (that season) to also insert Audrey's name. Audrey didn't start that year and I thought this was kind of early to give a freshman a play. And the only time we ran it was for an all-league player in Cassie. When she hit the three in the game it wasn't in the play, but in the timeout before I said to Angela, `let's run this play.' And within minutes she hit it."
It wouldn't be the first time Bauer came through at a key point in a game. Pemper recalled how she was the catalyst for the Mids in one of the biggest regular season wins by the program, a December 2011 victory over Princeton.
"On our first possession, I want to say she dribbled about half the length of the court and took what is not a high percentage shot for most people," said Pemper. "It was a 15-foot pull-up in transition and it went in. She immediately runs back down the court to play defense and had this `let's go' attitude and everyone on the bench just sat up a little straighter in their chairs and went, `Okay!' That really carried over the rest of the game. We as a team were bold that day and I always credit Audrey for that."
Later in her sophomore year, Navy was playing at Lehigh in the semifinal round of the league tournament. The Mids had posted a 1-9 record against the Mountain Hawks over the previous 10 meetings between the teams, a span that included a nine-point loss in Bethlehem, Pa., two weeks earlier. On this day, Navy was clinging to a two-point lead with just over one minute left to play. Similar to the American game a year earlier, Bauer's defender sagged off her and into the lane, this time to help defend Geif in the paint. Pollinger, on the right wing, saw Bauer scamper free beyond the three-point line on the left wing and whipped her the ball. Just as against the Eagles, Bauer caught and fired the ball in one motion. And again, the ball hit nothing but net -- "That's a dagger!" proclaimed the Lehigh television announcer -- to tally the final three points of a 64-59 win by the Mids. Five days later, Navy returned to Alumni Hall to top Holy Cross in the championship game of the league tournament.
Bauer would again spark the Mids in the postseason last year as a junior. Navy was facing a Bucknell team that 10 days earlier had handed the Mids a loss in the regular season finale that cost them the program's first outright regular season crown. Now, the Mids called timeout midway through the second half after the Bison had sliced the Navy advantage down to just four points.
As play resumed, Bauer rolled down the left side of the lane and then across a pair of picks to free herself on the right side of the court. Membreno saw this and passed the ball to her. Bauer caught the pass and quickly turned to send the ball flying to and through the rim. A Bauer steal soon gave the ball back to the Mids, and the ensuing possession ended with Bauer drilling a three-point shot. Those sequences were part of a 10-0 run that advanced Navy back into the title game for a third-straight year. And for the second year in a row, Navy would defeat Holy Cross on Championship Saturday to add to their collection of Alumni Hall nets.
"We were new to cutting down the nets as freshmen," said Bauer. "No one really knew what to do. It was an awesome experience that not too many get to have. It is really cool. We've been lucky in that we have been at home all three years, so all of our fans can stay around to watch us and share the whole experience with us."
Bauer has developed into one of the top three-point threats in Navy history. She went from making 30 treys as a freshman to 57 as a sophomore and then 69 as a junior. Her 156 career triples ranks fourth at Navy, while her average of 1.61 makes a game ranks third. She is not a player who fires at will, as her career three-point percentage of 34.6 percent (tied for seventh all-time at Navy) can attest.
Having success on the basketball court is important to Bauer, but so too has been succeeding in academics. She has posted a 3.49 cumulative grade-point average as an American politics and law major with a German minor. She has earned academic honors from the USNA in each of her six terms and has twice been named to the five-player Patriot League All-Academic Team.
"Growing up," said Bauer, "I always learned academics was the most important thing. You can't be reliant only on basketball. You can always get hurt, and then you are stuck. This was especially from my dad. He emphasized to my sister and I to be well rounded and not have just one thing. The prestige of the USNA academically was important in my decision. I was impressed with the people I met here, and the campus is beautiful. I was just drawn to the types of people I had met here during my short visit."
Her emphasis on academics is both noticeable and respected by her teammates and coaches.
"Audrey could be called `team mom' because she cares about the team and things people may not be the most enthusiastic about," said Pollinger. "She is always getting on people for their homework and making sure they are getting good grades and making sure they are staying upbeat with their company. I think it is because she is always checking in on people and making sure they are doing okay, even with stuff that has nothing to do with basketball."
"The team definitely feels Audrey leads them in terms of academics," said Pemper. "I don't know if I would go so far as to say they don't want to let her down, but it is like a leader on the basketball court and she is a leader academically."
As for her future beyond the Naval Academy, Bauer is looking to become a surface warfare officer and take some of the valuable lessons she has learned as a member of the basketball team with her to the fleet.
"I really like graduating from here and going straight to my first ship," said Bauer. "I can automatically be in the fleet right away. I have had some good experiences on cruises on ships. I thought it was a good opportunity and I enjoyed it more than the experiences I have had in other communities.
"Basketball provides a great opportunity to practice any kind of leadership skill and just build relationships with people. A basketball team is a good environment to practice those leadership skills I will be using in the future."
But before she is commissioned as an officer in May, there is one more basketball season left for her, one that she hopes will again culminate with a Selection Show party in March. The Mids enter the year as the pre-season favorite to win a fourth league tournament title in a row. Doing so would give Navy the chance to continue strong showings in the NCAA Tournament.
Navy's first trip to the Big Dance saw the 14th-seeded Mids lead DePaul early in the second half. The Mids were still within single digits of the Sweet 16-bound Blue Demons until the game's waning minutes before falling, 56-43. Navy then made the short drive to College Park to face Maryland in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Once again, the Mids hung in the game until the very end of a 59-44 defeat to the Terrapins. Last season, Navy led No. 2 seeded-Kentucky for most of the first half before going into halftime with a 26-25 lead. It was the first time a Patriot League team had led an NCAA Tournament game at halftime since the field was expanded to 64 teams over two decades ago. It was not until the Wildcats went on a game-closing 12-1 run before they could finally put away the Mids by the score of 61-41.
Navy has lost its three NCAA Tournament games by an average of 16.0 points a game. To put that in context, the rest of the Patriot League has combined to lose their NCAA Tournament games by an average of 34.9 points. Additionally, the three closest games by a league team in the event have been Navy's three efforts.
"The first year we were very grateful to have had the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament," said Bauer. "Going into the game, we definitely were not satisfied with just showing up. We practiced and prepared to win the game. As sophomores, the attitude changed a little more toward we really can win, so it was more disappointing. The third year we were leading, and it had to do with us raising the bar for ourselves to where it is not about just getting there but winning a game."
Though Audrey and Lydia haven't been teammates for several years and now are living a time zone apart, there has been one aspect of their separate lives that the siblings continue to bond through: basketball. What began simply as a fun activity they could do together as kids has enabled the miles between them to winnow and keep them close as young adults.
"I would always watch Lydia's games online when I could," said Audrey. "I think I went to one game for her in each of the past two years, which was nice. Just being able to follow her teams and see how she is doing is something not a lot of people can say they do. We definitely talk a lot of basketball, and it is interesting to see the differences in how our teams work. It gives me a different perspective on things I may not otherwise have. It allowed me the chance to bring some things she mentioned to our program and vice versa for her."
"I believe that though they are very different in many ways," said Andy, "they do take genuine pride in one another's accomplishments."
"Going to two different colleges to continue their basketball careers has been beneficial," said their mom, Rachel. "They have been able to establish their own identity both on and off the court. At the same time, each of their teams have experienced great success as Green Bay went to the `Big Dance' four years in a row and Navy is looking to do the same this season. They each have been able to share with each other their experiences in the NCAA Tournament, though being miles apart. That common experience between the two sisters has brought them closer together."
"I remember this past season, while my team was getting ready for our walk around at LSU for the NCAA Tournament game, we had the Navy-Kentucky game on the TV in the locker room and were watching it as a team," said Lydia, who amassed 165 career three pointers and 988 career points. "Those are the little memories that meant the world to me, to see Audrey playing with her team at the highest level of women's college basketball.
"I know that both of us are not far removed from our college basketball careers yet, with me just graduating and Audrey still playing, but I already can look back on the three years that we played in college at the same time and can only think how unique and special that was for us. I bet there are not many sisters that both play basketball in college at the same time, and probably even fewer sisters that get to the NCAA Tournament each year. Thinking about this upcoming Navy season, I am very excited to be able to watch more of Audrey's games now that I don't have a season to focus on myself. But even more important than her accomplishments on the floor, I am so much more impressed with her accomplishments off the court and the person she has grown to be.
"I am honored to have her as my sister."