Sports Vault: In 2000, the NKU women weren't considered contenders -- until they won it all

Div. II title was first of two for Coach Winstel

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- A couple of weeks ago, Michelle Marston stopped by her parents' house and watched a replay of the Northern Kentucky University women's basketball team's Division II national championship game from 2000.

Back then, she was Michelle Cottrell. She scored 23 points and grabbed 19 points in the Norse's 71-62 overtime defeat of North Dakota State in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and was named tournament MVP.

Marston, 36, counts NKU's title run among the best experiences in her life.

"It was so special. It was just a great time to play in the tournament like that -- and not only play, but go to the very end," Marston said. "To say that my teammates and I won the national championship is awesome. I'll never forget that time and those games."

The title was the first of two Division II national championships for the Norse under coach Nancy Winstel, who won more than 600 games in her 29-year tenure. It also was a little unexpected. The 1999-2000 team was considered a year away from a deep postseason run.

 

 

 

Only two starters were back from a group that had reached the national semifinals in 1998-99.

Of NKU's 11 players, Lisa Geiman was the lone senior. Four were juniors: Heather Livingstone, Michele Tuchfarber, Julie Cowens and Jessica "Jecca" Jenson. The sophomores were Cottrell and Suzie Smith, and the freshmen were Rebecca Bell, Amy Mobley, Bridget Flanagan and Kristin Polosky.

"I remember we were practicing in late October or early November and they brought out an early preseason Top 10. We were ranked like fifth in the country. I remember Michele Tuchfarber saying, 'Coach, did you see we're fifth in the country? Have they seen us practice?' I just thought it was hysterical," Winstel said.

"Then we thought, 'Well, gee, if people thought we were fifth in the country, maybe we are that good.' What I don't think we realized at the time is that we may have arguably had one of the best freshman classes in the history of our team."

In addition, Cowens and Livingstone were transfers from other programs. They brought experience that the Norse parlayed into victories in eight of their first nine games.

The 10th game, a Great Lakes Valley Conference clash against Bellarmine, ended in a 76-72 defeat.

"We were rolling along and winning by 15 or plus, and in the second half we played terribly," Winstel said. "We got beat at home. I can still remember 16 years later how upset I was, and (the players) were upset, and I think we just felt so bad that we didn't want to feel that way again."

The team never lost another game that season. NKU (32-2, 19-1 GLVC) won 24 straight outings en route to the national title.

NKU's Michelle Cottrell drives to the basket in the 2000 NCAA Division II national championship game. Cottrell was named Most Valuable Player in the tournament. (NKU Athletic Communications)

While the Norse's record remained pristine after Bellarmine, they had their share of scares along the way. Despite trailing in every game of the regional, they punched their ticket to the Elite Eight in Arkansas -- only to face Saint Rose, the No. 1-ranked team in Division II.

The tournament was not seeded at the time, so it was No. 1 (and undefeated) St. Rose versus No. 2 NKU for the right to move to the Final Four.

Winstel sized up Saint Rose with two of her assistants: Brian Neal, who's now the head women's basketball coach at Xavier, and Chris Gramke, now the varsity girls' hoops coach at Beechwood.

"I remember us thinking, 'I hope we don't get blown out.' We felt if we could keep it close maybe they would stress a little bit and play not to lose, and that's exactly what happened," Winstel said.

NKU won 60-50 behind Tuchfarber's team-high 14 points and team-high-tying six rebounds.

Jenson made the defensive play of the game by taking a charge that resulted in a cut near her eye. Winstel said the team doctor offered to stitch up Jenson's wound, which would have rendered her out for the game, or apply butterfly closures that would allow her to go back in.

"Jecca looked at me and said, 'Butterfly it,' " Winstel said.

The team embodied that toughness and determination, and within 24 hours it was back on the court beating Western Washington 80-75 in the Final Four. The victory ensured a third game in four days and a national championship match-up against a North Dakota State program aiming for a sixth national title.

NKU trailed at halftime, overtook the lead, fell behind again and rallied to force overtime. The Norse defense held the Bison to 0-for-7 shooting in the extra period and the Norse offense launched a surprise attack when faced with a full-court press.

Winstel recalled Mobley, who "had the arm of a quarterback," lobbing passes down the court for a trio of lay-ups that surprised North Dakota State and created crucial separation on the scoreboard.

NKU's victory was imminent as the final seconds ticked down. The thrill of the achievement enveloped players and fans, but Winstel was overtaken by a sense of calm.

Then and now, she loved what the title meant for the 2000 team and the others that preceded it. Winstel, a lifelong Northern Kentucky resident and a 1977 NKU alum, called it a "wonderful feeling."

The 2000 Northern Kentucky University women's basketball team celebrates winning the Division II national championship. (NKU Athletic Communications)

The team extended its celebration by jumping into its hotel pool, uniforms and all. Winstel joined her players.

Cottrell averaged a team-best 17.3 points and 9.4 rebounds throughout the season, while Tuchfarber (13.2 ppg) and Livingstone (11.3 ppg) rounded out NKU's double-figure scoring. Mobley added 8.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.

The 1999-2000 women's hoops team has long since scattered, its players and staff entrenched in their jobs and families, and the university has reclassified to Division I. Winstel, now retired, trains basketball players part time and remains involved with NKU's Hall of Fame Committee. 

Marston married former NKU men's hoops player Scott Marston about 13 years ago. She spent a decade as a physical education teacher and now stays home with their nearly 4-year-old son, Luke.

While watching the national championship video at her parents' house, Marston was struck by the chemistry and unselfishness the team displayed. The Norse played well together, and for each other.

"We just had this great teamwork, and I think that's why we ended up winning," Marston said.

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