Women's College Basketball

Loose Leathernecks mirror coach's personality and approach

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Mar. 16, 2017 12:01 am

MACOMB, Ill. -- Followers of the Western Illinois University women's basketball team on social media have come to expect the unexpected.

One day, there might be video clips of a dunk contest among the coaches. The next, it could be a karaoke contest. Or maybe a pizza giveaway. Or free dippin' dots for that matter.

It's always entertaining. It's always unique. And it's always leading to something bigger and better like the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 22 years.

The Leathernecks (26-6) earned the No. 14 seed in the Stockton Regional and will open against third-seeded Florida State at 6:30 p.m. Friday in Tallahassee. Fla. The game will be shown on ESPN2.

"Seeing how no 14th seed has ever won kind of sparked our interest a little bit more," WIU coach JD Gravina said. "We know we have a huge task at hand."

Or a huge opportunity, depending on your perspective.

"We've done the impossible two or three times this season," Gravina said. "So our motto is kind of ‘Why not do it one more time?'"

That fits the vibe this team has.

It starts with Gravina and assistant coach Seth Minter. They carry a fun-loving, play-with-gusto attitude wherever they go. Gravina showcased it at Quincy University, where he was the head women's basketball coach from 2007-11 and took the Hawks to three NCAA Tournament appearances in four seasons.

Minter, a Culver-Stockton College graduate, coached girls basketball at Canton, Mo., for three years before becoming the head coach at C-SC in 2010. After one season at C-SC, Minter resigned to join Gravina's staff at WIU.

Together, they've molded the Leathernecks into an energetic bunch.

"I don't know if we recruited people who fit that personality that Coach Minter and I kind of have already or if our team kind of adopted it as they became acclimated to our culture," Gravina said. "We're very loose. They are just a fun team. They joke around a lot. They give me a lot of grief to be honest with you.

"They are very down to earth and humble and gracious and everything you'd want from a group of girls."

It's reminiscent of the teams he enjoyed coaching at Quincy.

"I thought that was as good as it gets," Gravina said.

This team, though, has exceeded all expectations.

"Our locker room, our attitude, our personality is like nothing I've seen," Gravina said.

The results are the same. The Leathernecks won the Summit League regular-season title and No. 1 seed for the conference tournament, but they needed a miracle finish to knock off IUPUI in the tourney title game and earn the league's automatic NCAA berth.

"I did think we could be successful and we could grow the program," Gravina said. "Winning the conference tournament is so hard with it being in Sioux Falls. No team outside South Dakota had ever done it on the women's side since it was in Sioux Falls.

"To be able to do that was probably even beyond my expectations."

Maybe so, but it's an opportunity to relish.

"When you get into college basketball, you know that dream is to go to the NCAA Tournament," Gravina said. "I'm pretty thankful that it was able to come true for us."

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