Bowdoin’s Cordelia Stewart scores on a short shot over Colby’s Emily Davis during a game in early December. Portland Press Herald photo by John Ewing

 

BRUNSWICK — Adrienne Shibles knows she has something special in her Bowdoin College women’s basketball team.

After Bowdoin had dispatched of Ithaca College 87-61 on Saturday to advance to the NCAA Division III semifinals for the second consecutive year, the head coach was asked what makes the Polar Bears so successful.

“It took a lot of hard work,” she said, “a lot of selflessness, a lot of team-first mentality that I don’t think is common these days.”

Maybe not. But here, in Morrell Gymnasium, it’s the culture of a program that has made the NCAA tournament in 18 of the last 19 seasons, has won 59 games the last two seasons and advanced to the national championship game a year ago.

“It’s always an adjustment coming into college,” said senior center Cordelia Stewart of Bangor. “In our program, in particular, you form so much love and trust for your team. It’s not about you. Every day in practice, you’re working so hard to make everyone else better. You’re putting your whole team, everyone else, first, so that when we get to the court, it’s just about playing together. It’s not about you. That’s what a team is.”

And now the Polar Bears are in the Final Four for the third time in school history, looking to win the school’s first basketball national title.

Bowdoin (30-1) plays the University of St. Thomas (30-1) from Minnesota at 5 p.m. Friday in the semifinals at the Cregger Center in Salem, Virginia. The winner advances to the D-III national championship game at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against either Thomas More University of Kentucky or the University of Scranton from Pennsylvania.

Last year, Bowdoin lost in the national title game to New England Small College Athletic Conference rival Amherst, 65-45, a loss that fueled the Polar Bears the past 52 weeks.

“It’s been a driving force for us,” senior forward Hannah Graham of Presque Isle said. “Having a taste of what that environment is like was definitely motivating in that we want to get back to that place. Only this time we want the confetti to be black and white.”

Graham and Stewart are joined by guard Taylor Choate, of Nashua, New Hampshire, and Abby Kelly, of Bombay, New York, as seniors who, Shibles said “set the standard for their selflessness and team-first culture.”

Kelly, the NESCAC’s Player of the Year, leads the Polar Bears by averaging 14.8 points a game. Choate, who tied a school record with 38 points and seven 3-pointers in Bowdoin’s NCAA second-round win over Smith, is third at 13.1 points a game and Graham is fifth at 7.4 points. But it is the example they set in practice every day that sets the tone.

“It’s really easy for our freshmen to come in and look at our seniors and say, ‘They’re really good,’” Shibles said. “But we talk throughout the year about the sacrifices those women have made for their roles on this team.”

They bought into the team-first mentality because that’s what they saw from the upperclassmen when they arrived, said Kelly.

“Right off the bat, you see that’s how we do it here,” Kelly said. “Everyone contributes in so many ways.”

In practice, scores are kept during drills and players are pushed to be their best.

“It goes back to our philosophy of getting 1 percent better every day,” Shibles said. “You can’t take a practice off, you can’t take a drill off. And so I think that’s made a huge difference in how competitive we are.”

“In practice, we’re playing against some of the best players in the nation,” Choate said. “We don’t take it easy on each other. Some of the toughest competition I face is when Sam Roy is guarding me in practice.”

Shibles said junior forward Maddie Hasson (14.4 points, team-high 6.2 rebounds per game) of South Portland, sophomore guard Moira Train of Cumberland and Greely High School, and Roy, the feisty junior point guard from Stafford Springs, Connecticut, have improved vastly because of the competition they face each day in practice and the work they put in the offseason, when players were up at 6:30 a.m. for weight training.

And, Kelly said, every weight they lifted, every sprint they ran, every shot they took, has led them back to the Final Four.

“We want to cherish every moment,” she said. “We want to go out with a bang. This is a moment we’ll never forget.”

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