PITTSBURGH (AP) — In a flash, anxiety became joy. Belief morphed into reality. The slow steady rise from obscurity to respectability validated in an instant. The free T-shirts that read “Duquesne’s Going Dancing” transformed from wishful thinking to truth in advertising.
Welcome to the madness, Dukes. You too, Central Arkansas, Buffalo, Jacksonville and Iona. The NCAA women’s basketball tournament isn’t just for the blue bloods anymore.
All five programs will make their NCAA debuts this weekend after earning their first-ever tournament berths, a watershed moment for schools who have spent the last three decades relegated to watching the madness play out on TV without them.
“You just couldn’t leave us out,” Burt said.
And the NCAA didn’t, though the Dukes admitted to a few anxious moments as the matchups for the first three regions went by without them.
“That little party we had my freshman year, it was awful,” said senior guard April Robinson. “It came down to the last region like tonight. I started feeling the way I did three years ago.”
Until suddenly, she didn’t. When Duquesne popped up as the ninth seed in the Bridgeport Regional, the girls in the blue-and-red sweatsuits exploded from their seats, taking giddy selfies before gathering to shout “family.” Getting to learn about eighth-seeded Seton Hall — and a potential second-round matchup with defending national champion Connecticut — could wait.
Monday night was about the final steps in a journey that began in 1974 with a 5-8 record and a schedule that included a 92-31 loss to eventual crosstown rival Pittsburgh’s junior varsity team. Over 40 years and 1,000 games later, the Dukes were finally dancing. The fact they had to wait out the show made it that much sweeter.
“I can’t explain it,” said senior guard Deva’Nyar Workman. “I wanted to cry. I think I did cry.”
Hard to blame her. Duquesne watched McConnell-Serio build the Dukes to the edge of the tournament only to bolt for Pitt three years ago. That left Burt to put the final pieces together, something he’s done with a United Nations-approach to roster building. Six Dukes are foreign-born players, including junior Amadea Szamosi.
The Hungarian forward started getting recruited by Burt when she was 15. She was well aware the Dukes had never been dancing before. And while she had offers from more established schools, she felt a pull to the program situated on bluff with no NCAA pedigree that she couldn’t quite explain.
“I knew Duquesne never made it,” Szamosi said. “I just had this feeling it can happen and I was like, ‘Let’s make it happen now.'”
While the Dukes’ rise was steady — they’d won at least 20 games every year since 2009 — Buffalo’s rise has been more erratic. The Bulls (20-13) watched the men’s program reach the NCAAs under former coach Bobby Hurley but never really came close until this spring, when they put together an improbable run as an eighth-seed in the MAC tourney, knocking off the Mustangs when Stephanie Reid — who is from Australia banked in a shot at horn.
“I understand how special it is,” Reid said. “It’s history. That’s something that not everyone gets to do. Not everyone gets to make history and to be a part of it. Just thankful for it and it hasn’t really sunk in yet. It’s just over the moon.”
And on to Columbus, Ohio, for a first-round meeting with Ohio State in a home game for the Buckeyes. Making headway as a 14th-seed won’t be easy. Then again, it beats the alternative of not playing at all.
“I feel a bracket-buster coming on,” senior guard Karin Moss said. “I’m telling you. Our team is one that … we’re unpredictable.”
A mindset that should fit right in during the madness, a place the Bulls or the Dukes plan on abandoning anytime soon.
“I just felt like our name belongs there and I just want to see it,” Szamosi said. “I want to see it every single time from this year on.”
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo contributed to this report.