It was a decade in the making, this NCAA dance to which the University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bears have earned an invitation.
Ten years into membership in NCAA Division I, the Sugar Bears are UCA’s first basketball team to head to the NCAA tournament, known affectionately as the "Big Dance."
When Central Arkansas’ name and pairing appeared on the television screen Monday night during ESPN’s NCAA selection show, the celebration was natural and a bit surreal to players and coaches.
It was a process. In five seasons, coach Sandra Rushing built a team that fits her style of play, which puts defense as a priority. She developed depth. She got her players to buy into a dream and the hard work necessary to get there.
The Sugar Bears that were picked to finish seventh in the Southland Conference in preseason are now 28-3. Many of the victories were not pretty but the players held together to prevail on the way to a No. 1 seed in the SLC tournament, then the tourney title and the automatic NCAA berth.
They have proven to be a resilient team. They steadied themselves after a midseason loss to Northwestern State at home on Feb. 10.
Now, they face probably the greatest challenge a Sugar Bear team has had to face.
The upside is they managed a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament. Teams from the Southland Conference, traditionally not a high RPI league, are usually slotted at No. 15.
The downside is the Sugar Bears have their first-round matchup against Louisville.
The Cardinals (25-7) are a better team this year than the Tennessee Lady Vols, which defeated the Sugar Bears, 102-47, in season opener. Tennessee, on the way to one of its worst seasons in decades, is 19-13 and a seven seed.
Since Dec. 10, the Louisville women are 24-2. They were 15-1 in the highly regarded Atlantic Coast Conference with the only regular-season defeat to Notre Dame, one of four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tourney. Louisville lost in the ACC tournament to Syracuse.
The Cardinals, known as a physical defensive team under coach Jeff Walz, are probably best known for pulling one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history, eliminating a Baylor team led by Britney Griner in the regional in 2009.
There is traditionally a large chasm between the elite women’s teams and the mid-majors. Except possibly in those 8-9 or 7-10 matchups, the higher seeds hardly ever lose in the early rounds of the women’s tourney. Teams seeded 14-16 have a 1-263 record since 1994, when the tourney expanded to 64 teams, No. 14 seeds are 0-88 all-time.
A positive is ESPN analysts have rated the UCA Sugar Bears are the best name team in the tourney. So, UCA’s "brand" will receive a lot of attention this week in Louisville.
The Sugar Bears earned their spot in the field through perseverance, hard work and dreaming. They are pioneers.
And Arkansas has only two teams in NCAA Division I tournaments, the Sugar Bears and the Little Rock men.
A dream is alive for one more game, which is all you can ask at one-and-done tournament time.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or email@example.com)