By PAT EATON-ROBB
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Quinnipiac University isn’t the first team that comes to mind when people mention women’s basketball in Connecticut.
But after 21 straight wins, some are starting to take notice of the team from Hamden.
The Bobcats will host St. Francis (Pa.) in the Northeast Conference championship game Sunday at 29-2, with a chance to earn the program’s first berth in the NCAA tournament.
“We are kind of waking people up a little bit,” said forward Brittany McQuain, a junior from Independence, Mo., who acknowledges she had never heard of Quinnipiac before an assistant coach came to recruit her. “It’s good to be a part of this, and great that people are starting to recognize who we are.”
The team picked up a vote in this week’s AP poll for the first time in school history and a championship could get them closer to their first-ever ranking.
The Bobcats returned 12 players from a team that won 22 games last season before falling to Temple in the WNIT, so their success was not entirely unexpected. But sophomore guard Jasmine Martin said they began believing the season might be special after they beat St. John’s, 75-72, in December.
“To know that we had the potential to compete with teams at that level just gave us a great confidence boost,” said Martin, one of three Bobcats who average more than 10 points a game. “We were like, `There is no reason we lose any game in our conference.”
They didn’t, going 18-0 in the NEC regular season and winning those games by an average of 14.
The team’s depth has allowed coach Tricia Fabbri to implement an unusual strategy, subbing five players in and out of the game at a time, much like a line on a hockey team, a nice coincidence since Quinnipiac is perhaps best known for having the nation’s top-ranked hockey team.
“It allows us to play at a defensive pressure and an offensive pace that just fatigues teams as the game goes on,” Fabbri said.
The Bobcats’ only losses have come to Georgia Tech and Hartford, which also is playing this weekend for an NCAA bid in the America East title game.
The crowd at home games, which typically has consisted of family and a few friends from the school, has been starting to grow along with the winning streak. But, it’s still a long way from the rowdy, standing-room only gatherings at the rink next door.
“Hockey is really big,” Martin said. “It would be awesome if we could get the student section filled or the arena filled, because we’ve never had that experience before. That vibe would just take it over the top. But, ultimately we’re doing this for each other. It’s about the ring.”
Quinnipiac got a scare Wednesday in a 63-56 semifinal win over Mt. Saint Mary’s, trailing by five at the half, and eight early in the second half. But Martin scored 15 of her 22 points in the second half to get the team to Sunday’s title game.
Fabbri believes they have now done enough to earn an at-large bid NCAA bid, should they lose to St. Francis. But the players said they have no intention of leaving anything up to the tournament committee.
“It’s something we could only dream of as little kids, and our coaches have never experienced,” Martin said. “Hopefully Sunday night we get it done, and we make history. I don’t plan on losing.”