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Column: No one can slow down the California Baptist women’s basketball team. Except the NCAA

Senior guard Ane Oleata (3) and sophomore wing Tiena Neale (13) and their California Baptist teammates
Senior guard Ane Oleata (3) and sophomore wing Tiena Neale (13) and their California Baptist teammates are undefeated but not allowed to participate in the NCAA tournament.
(California Baptist University)

If there were some logic involved, if there were compelling reasons to explain why California Baptist’s women’s basketball team wasn’t allowed to take its 24-0 record to the NCAA tournament and compete for a national title, the Lancers might find their strange situation easier to understand.

If they were sure some good would come out of the four-year tournament exclusion the NCAA imposed when the private Christian school from Riverside moved from Division II to Division I in 2018, they might still consider the decree too harsh but they could have accepted the possibility CBU would benefit from a slow transition.

But as with so many NCAA rules, this one doesn’t benefit student-athletes. It’s keeping the Lancers, the Western Athletic Conference’s regular-season and tournament champions, out of the spotlight at the precise moment they’ve earned a chance to shine.
They’re the first team since Connecticut in 2017-18 to go undefeated in the regular season and win the conference tournament in the same season and the fourth since 1998, an elite group that also includes Notre Dame and Baylor. But because they’re still in that transition limbo they’re also the first team to go undefeated and not participate in the NCAA tournament since Oral Roberts in 1983. It’s difficult to see any good coming out of that.

Third-seeded UCLA will open the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament against No. 14 Wyoming on March 22.

“It’s very, very strange,” said senior guard Ane Olaeta of Spain, whose 7.6 assists per game would lead the nation if the NCAA didn’t exclude the Lancers’ stats because of the same absurd transition rules. “I feel like being 24-0, they should let us go in because I feel like we can compete. But the rule is the rule and they’re not going to change it.”

This one ranks with the most ludicrous of NCAA rules, which is saying a lot. “It’s very bizarre. No one’s really explained a good rationale for it,” CBU coach Jarrod Olson said. “I just always assume it’s got something to do with money because that’s how everything at the NCAA works. Not just them — pretty much the world.

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“I always come back to if money is the issue then just take money out of the equation because the kids on the team never see any of the money, anyway, and they’re the ones that are really getting penalized. I can coach as long as I can find a job. They only have four years to play, and when you limit their opportunities, I think you’re just hurting the players more than anybody.

California Baptist coach Jarrod Olson
(California Baptist University)

“I’ve been to an NCAA Division II tournament, so I’ve had chances to do postseason as a coach. But when you have players that work really hard and they’re being penalized by the same group that’s supposed to be supporting them and giving them opportunities, it just sits the wrong way.”

Every player knew this could happen. This is the third season of the transition for CBU, whose teams will be eligible for NCAA postseason competition for the 2022-23 season. “It’s gotten easier because our first group of kids, they knew they would never get to do it. And then the next group knew, ‘We’ll at least have one chance at it because it’s a four-year process,’ ” Olson said. “The longer we’ve gone into it the easier that’s gotten.”

But no one expected the Lancers’ season would become so special, that they’d be undefeated and lead the WAC in scoring offense (77.7 points per game), scoring margin (plus-18.4), field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense, three-point field goal percentage and a bunch of other categories. They share the ball and play a fast, dynamic style.

Mercedez Sanchez finally got to perform in a meet at Pauley Pavilion as a graduate transfer for San Jose State. It gave her a chance to honor her late brother.

Their surprising success made their disappointment sting more sharply when Utah Valley, the regular-season WAC runner-up, got the automatic NCAA bid. “It kind of didn’t really seem real to us or upsetting that we couldn’t make it until we won the WAC,” sophomore wing Tiena Neale said. “And it was like, ‘Aw, dang, I wish we could go.’ ”

The Lancers will compete in the 32-team WNIT, and that’s a solid consolation prize. They’re among the eight teams in the Fort Worth regional, where they’ll face New Mexico (15-4) on Friday at the Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center. Round 2 will be played on Saturday and Round 3 on Monday. The regional champions will advance to Memphis for the semifinals on March 26, with the final scheduled for March 28. There’s no formal seeding in the tournament.

In a time of uncertainty, they’re happy to have another goal to aim for. “It’s been a really weird season. We’re getting tested almost every other day and honestly, it’s the fact that you just don’t know what’s going to happen next. No game is guaranteed,” said Neale, whose parents live in Canada and likely won’t attend the WNIT because of border-crossing restrictions. “Coach always says, ‘Just be grateful that we have an opportunity to play,’ so that’s always what we say.”

They also have an opportunity to make a statement. “If they don’t let us go to the NCAA,” Olaeta said, “we might as well just prove ourselves in the WNIT and try and win.”

California Baptist sophomore Tiena Neale launches a shot.
California Baptist sophomore Tiena Neale’s parents live in Canada and likely won’t attend the WNIT because of border-crossing restrictions.
(California Baptist University)

Neale has found similar motivation. “We want to prove we’re definitely a good enough team to be in the NCAA tournament and show everyone, ‘Hey, maybe you should have let us play in the tournament because we’re going to play really well in the WNIT,’ ” she said.

Maybe some small bit of good could come out of this: If the NCAA sees how well CBU has adapted to a higher level of play, it might reduce the transition time for teams that make the same jump in the future. That could be the biggest win of all for CBU.

“Maybe our story will give them a chance to look at that and maybe make a change in the way that that’s done,” Olson said. “I think that would be great, and if there’s anything we could do to be a part of that I’d feel pretty proud to have done something like that for someone else down the road.”


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