PAC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview: More on the Line Than Thomas More’s Inevitable Title

By Justin Zackal

There’s more at stake than Thomas More’s quest for a 10th straight PAC title as eight of the league’s 10 teams compete in the PAC Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament February 22-27. Here is a look at the storylines to follow this week:

THE SET PLAY: This is the second year of a double-bye format for the women’s tournament, with the top two seeds going directly to the semifinal round. The third and fourth seeds receive one bye to the quarterfinals. Top-seeded Thomas More (25-0, 18-0 PAC) will host the semifinal and final rounds on Friday and Saturday. The first round and quarterfinals will be hosted by the higher seeds on Monday and Wednesday. This benefits second-seeded Washington & Jefferson (21-4, 16-2 PAC), which didn’t have a double bye last year as the three seed and can’t afford another weaker team on its schedule as it looks to pad its resume for an NCAA tournament at-large bid.

THE LAY-UP: Understatement of the year is saying Thomas More is the easy favorite to win its 10th straight PAC title. The Saints are Division III’s top-ranked team and defending national champion. They’ve won 82 straight regular season PAC games and outscored PAC teams by nearly 50 points per game this year (averaging 97.5 points allowing 49.2).

“They are significantly better than last year, if that’s possible,” said Jina DeRubbo, head coach at W&J, whose only two conference losses this year were to Thomas More by scores of 103-56 and 88-57. “Just when you think it can’t get any worse (for other teams in the PAC). The sophomores that were freshmen last year, they’ve gotten a lot better with more confidence and more game experience.”


Senior Beka Bellhy leads a W&J team hoping for an NCAA Tournament bid.

THE GOOD LOOK: Washington & Jefferson has the most on the line as it attempts to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Sure, a monumental upset of Thomas More would give W&J an automatic berth, but a win in the semifinals and top seeds in the other conferences in the Great Lakes Region winning their tournaments doesn’t guarantee anything. Remember, last year’s PAC runner-up Saint Vincent was 22-5 and didn’t make NCAAs.

“Even at that, it’s probably a 50/50 chance,” DeRubbo said. “We have a better chance to make the NCAA tournament than we do to win the conference championship. I’m not saying we can’t win a championship. You don’t have to be better than Thomas More to beat them; you just have to be better on one particular day.”

DeRubbo wasn’t afraid to put pressure on her players to collect wins against teams other than Thomas More, telling them that they have to be perfect in those games.

“We have no margin for error,” DeRubbo said. “We have to be 22-5 if we want even a look to get in the tournament.”

THE LONG SHOT: Every team other than Thomas More winning the title is a “long shot,” but here are two possible upsets to watch in the semifinals and quarterfinals.

Third-seeded Waynesburg (13-12, 11-7 PAC) enters the tournament on a four-game win streak, rebounding from a five-game losing streak that culminated with a 90-84 loss at W&J in which the Yellow Jackets led with under five minutes left. If Waynesburg wins in the quarterfinals, it’ll likely face W&J in the semifinals.

“I think they are a dangerous team,” DeRubbo said. “The last game they played us very well. I think they are a team that has gotten better over the course of the year.”

Fifth-seeded Saint Vincent (13-12, 8-10 PAC) opens with eighth-seeded Bethany (8-17, 6-12 PAC), a team that’s lost eight straight, in the first round. And if the Bearcats advance to the quarterfinals, they go to fourth-seeded Grove City (13-12, 10-7 PAC), a team they beat 55-41 on February 13 as part of winning five of their last seven.


Thomas More’s Sydney Moss became the PAC’s career scoring leader on Saturday.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH: Thomas More senior G/F Sydney Moss, the PAC’s all-time leading scorer with 2,103 career points, is averaging 20.7 points per game this year. The two-time Division III Player of the Year entered last week ranked 15th in the nation in scoring.

“She’s just on such a different level than everyone else,” DeRubbo said.

W&J senior G/F Beka Bellhy is second in scoring (18.2 ppg), but her sister, sophomore G/F Rachel Bellhy, is helping carry the load with a 9.4 average that includes 13.7 in her last seven games and a pair of 20-point games.

“We’re more balanced at this point than we were at the beginning of the year,” DeRubbo said. “Beka still continues to score a lot of points, but I don’t think she has to in order for us to win.”

Two post players to watch are Grove City senior Kathryn Erbelding, the PAC’s leading rebounder with 9.0 boards per game, to go with a 15.4 scoring average. Waynesburg sophomore F Abby Knetzer averages 14.1 points and 8.8 rebounds, including 22 points and 10 boards in her last three games.

THE LAST SHOT: Thomas More is tuning up for another national title run and W&J has a possible NCAA berth at stake, but another dynamic to the double-bye format is a chance for lower seeds to distinguish themselves against more evenly matched opponents and to play a home game, like seventh-seeded Geneva (9-16, 6-12 PAC) playing at six-seed Chatham (10-15, 6-12 PAC).

“There are usually three or four teams that are clearly the top half of the conference and this year it’s a little more open,” DeRubbo said. “(Lower seeded teams like) Chatham and Geneva have gotten over the hump and have done some good things this year. (The new format) gives more excitement for those teams.”