In making the move from D-II to D-I, the Wildcats could have been irritated by the process, which mandates a waiting period before becoming eligible to play in even a conference tournament, much less the NCAA show. But the task of fortifying a program for the long haul doesn’t leave room for short-term frustrations, and Abilene Christian is showing signs of being more than ready for the jump.
In 2015-16, the Wildcats posted a 26-3 record and stunned the Southland Conference by going 17-1 to claim the regular-season crown. By taking care of business there, Abilene Christian earned a berth in the 2016 Postseason WNIT, where it will play at UTEP in the first round on Thursday, March 17.
“With the WNIT available as an option, the women’s basketball program has never even talked about the transition. It might be tough for other teams who just have to stop when the season is over,” said Wildcats head coach Julie Goodenough. “But there’s no negative attitude with us. We got it done during the season, and now we get to play on. We’ve focused on what we can do – last summer, we said our goal was to make the WNIT, and I feel that in our program, the transition has been smooth.”
Another critical element in the harmony felt within Abilene Christian is that the entire starting lineup from last season was back for this campaign. While Lizzy Dimba was sidelined by injury a month ago, the four others started all 29 games and each averaged better than 10 points per contest.
“It’s been a huge key, the consistency we’ve had. They are very in sync on the floor, and it’s been great seeing that group come back more mature,” Goodenough said. “They play a ton of minutes, and there’s not a lot of scoring available for (the bench). But those players, they know how to come in and make big plays. They gets us a rebound when we need it, take a charge, get an assist – they make things happen.”
ACU starters Suzzy Dimba, Alexis Mason, Sydney Shelstead and Whitney West Swinford all surpassed 1,000-career points within two months of each other. Swinford – a senior – eclipsed that milestone Jan. 2, while Mason – a junior – reached that total on Jan. 23 at Incarnate Word. Junior forwards Dimba and Shelstead scored their 1,000th points during the final week of the regular season against Incarnate Word and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, respectively.
"It was cool to be part of this team and win the (D-II) Lone Star Conference championship and be named freshman of the year, and finish my senior year with the Southland Conference championship. It was great being on such a close team, and to have my best season as a senior in only our third year of playing D-I basketball,” said Swinford, who credits an overtime win in December at Idaho with fully invigorating the squad. “I felt (that) was really a turning point for all of us. It was after that overtime win we knew we were really good and that we could win the Southland Conference championship. It was not just going to be a dream. We believed in ourselves and were going to make it a reality. We really got rolling and hit our groove during and after that game."
Mason was named Southland’s player of the year after averaging 17.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, and Goodenough signed a contract extension that takes her through the 2019-2020 season. Hitting the road to take on UTEP is daunting (the Miners were in the Postseason WNIT final in 2014), but there’s nothing but enthusiasm on the Wildcats’ roster.
“It’s been incredible. We had a ‘watch party’ and were just so excited and ready for the bracket to be revealed,” Goodenough added. “There’s a lot of excitement around the program, and I’m just thankful – it’s a blessing to be in the postseason.”