GREENWOOD – The thrill of victory and the need to move on to the next opponent, the accomplishment of a lifetime and a thirst for more, tremendous fatigue but enough adrenaline to keep competing at an even higher level. The Elite 8 represents all these things, and the Lander women's basketball team is experiencing this ultimate business and pleasure trip as they prepare for Rollins tonight in San Antonio in the NCAA Division II National Tournament quarterfinals at Bill Greehey Arena on the campus of St. Mary's University.
The national semifinals and championship game are Wednesday and Friday night, and will be nationally televised.
The Lady Bearcats are the second basketball team at the school to reach the Elite Eight. The Lander men's squad played in the Elite Eight in 1999 in Louisville, Ky., narrowly losing in the quarterfinals to the No. 1 team and eventual national champion Kentucky Wesleyan.
No. 24 ranked Lady Bearcats (24-7) outlasted Wingate 72-67 in double overtime Monday night at USC Aiken to win the Southeast Regional. No. 15 Rollins edged Valdosta State 56-54 to win the South Region.
The other three quarterfinal games have No. 1-ranked Wayne State College facing No. 5 Bentley University, No. 2 Ashland University versus No. 8 Alaska-Anchorage, and Shaw University against No. 14 Pittsburg State.
But Pederson knows little about that schedule beyond Tuesday night because he is focused on Rollins.
"Rollins is a very good offensive team. They run a read-and-react motion. They are a difficult team to scout for offensively. They run a lot of different players into the game. It's not like us where we just play a small rotation. They have a lot of different players. No one averages more than 23 minutes per game," Pederson said of the Rollins Tars, whose campus is located in Winter Park, Fla.
"Like us, they rely heavily on the 3-point shot. They are very good off the ball. They make great cuts. They really put a lot of pressure on defenses the way they move out there."
Pederson said Rollins is traditionally strong on defense.
"I remember learning about Rollins when I first got into coaching," Pederson said. "They win 20 games every year. They are usually in the national tournament. They are always competing for their league title. They are usually ranked as one of the top defensive teams in the nation. It's interesting to scout them now, seeing the team I have heard about for years. Everything is kind of what I expected."
The Lady Bearcats, especially in their full-court press, force a lot of turnovers. But Rollins is a good ball-handling team, Pederson said.
"They take better care of the basketball than any team we have played this year," the seventh-year Lander coach said. "They have an incredibly low turnover rate. It's like 13 turnovers per game which would be by far the best average in the Peach Belt Conference.
"Their defense makes it very hard for you to score. If you get 65 points against them, you have done a heck of a job. They are a very well balanced team. You don't see any weaknesses. They are going to keep it low scoring. They are going to lock you up in the half-court. They are good at defending the drive (to the basket)."
The Lander-Rollins winner faces the Shaw-Pittsburg State victor at 8:30 p.m., March 21. Scouting reports come one game at a time when a team gets this deep into the national tournament.
"It's exciting to go out and see different teams that you have never seen before," Pederson said. "Usually, (Division II) basketball is regional and you see differences in how the game is played from region to region.
"It's exciting to see teams like that who are well-coached and are playing at a high level. I think that is one of the more exciting aspects of this trip is to see the eight best teams in the country playing at the same place."
The teams come eight regions: the South, Southeast, Atlantic, South Central, East, Midwest, Central and West.
"Right now, I am really trying to just worry about Rollins," Pederson said. "I am just a big believer in taking care of the game at hand. I don't know about many of the other teams. I have played Bentley before when I was at Anderson and lost 58-54. I remember how good they were at half-court defense. I know Barb Stevens is the winningest coach in Division II history (with 851 wins).
"We did play Shaw last year (winning 81-65). I know Shaw has a lot of talented Division I transfers on their team. But beyond that, I don't anything about the rest of the teams."
The Lady Bearcats reached their first Elite 8 with a dramatic, heart-stopping, double overtime win Monday night. Lander had leads of 13 points in the second half and four points in the first overtime before finally putting Wingate away in the final minute of double overtime on a Brittni Johnson 3-pointer and a Ciara Lyons basket to beat the shot clock.
Johnson and Jasmine Judge played the entire 50 minutes, and Kaylyn Small played many more minutes than she is accustomed to while putting up career highs in both points (19) and rebounds (22) in a heroic effort.
Some players were so exhausted, they struggled to get up and down the ladder to cut down the nets.
The thrill of victory was immense. But then came the realization that there is more work to do, from preparation for the next opponent, to making plans to go to San Antonio and the hectic schedule that the Elite Eight requires.
It's the nature of the NCAA Tournament, and the Lady Bearcats are happy to be living it.
"Everybody keeps telling me to enjoy it," said Pederson, who is experiencing the range of emotions. "I have got all summer to enjoy this. And I promise you I will. When I'm sitting at the beach on a family vacation, this is going to feel really good, and I will appreciate this the rest of my life.
"You wake up in the morning, you enjoy it. But as soon as you put your shoes on and go into work, you have work to do. Right now, I am intimidated by Rollins and I don't want us to not be ready. That's kind of my motivation to get ready for Rollins. What is it that they can do to beat us? And I'm looking at Rollins and I see several ways they can beat us. That's the biggest concern for me.
"It's really hard to enjoy it right now. If we win Tuesday night, that will be fantastic. And then it will be back to grinding it out again Wednesday morning (in preparation for the semifinals). You have really small windows in this profession to enjoy things during the season. When it's done, there will be plenty of time to reflect on what a special season this has been."
Pederson has repeatedly said that the Elite Eight in Division II is the equivalent to the Final Four in Division I. Pederson had been close before, reaching the Sweet 16 once as a coach at Anderson University and again at Lander in each of the last three seasons. After three near misses, he is finally in.
The current Lady Bearcat senior class had a chance to reach the Elite Eight twice before, losing to Tusculum at home two seasons ago, and at eventual national champion Clayton State last year. So finally making it is a large monkey off many backs at Lander.
"Coming up short three times certainly makes this one a little bit sweeter," Pederson said, referring to his coaching career. "I have said and I will always that the one here against Tusculum is the one that got away from us. Last year against Clayton, I just thought they were better than we were.
"My first year at Anderson, you could tell that Charleston (University of West Virginia) played better competition than we had. We had a hard time keeping up with them, and we lost the game by about 16."
A sellout crowd filled the Finis Horne Arena in Greenwood two years ago with March Madness anticipation as the Lady Bearcats were aiming for a trip to the Elite Eight in St. Joseph, Mo.
Lander came out on fire, building an early 16-point lead, and the crowd was rocking. But Tusculum made up most of that deficit by halftime and pulled ahead late in the second half behind a tiny dynamic guard named Jasmine Gunn. The Lady Bearcats struggled to make a shot down the stretch and suffered a deflating loss.
"Tusculum was a game we were up 24-8. I can relive that game. We lose 70-63. That is the game that if we had never reached the Elite Eight, that game would always haunt me," Pederson said. "We should have won that game. We were at home and we had that game under the control, and we slowly let it slip away.
"Everyone carries their sack of bricks around as their regrets. It's nice to kind of let those bricks go. If we had lost to Wingate and come up short again, I would go back to that Tusculum game because that was our chance. It's nice to put that behind us and punch that ticket to the Elite Eight."
The window to the Elite Eight could have closed some with the loss of national Player of the Year Shannon McKever and three other key players. And the Lady Bearcats closed this regular season by losing four out of their final eight games, a bad stretch by recent Lander standards. But Pederson said he felt all along that this team could go further even with less talent.
"When you look at the talent we had last year compared to this year – and we've got great talent this year – but you take away Shannon McKever, Tasheba Butler, Nardia Robbins and Brianna Webb," Pederson said.
"Brianna Webb was our spark off the bench, Nardia Robbins was fourth in the nation in assists, Shannon McKever was the National Player of the Year, and Tasheba Butler was one of the best mid-range shooting post players in the country along with a good rebounder. You take those four players away and add one player Precious Elkins, who is a real good player. But we added one good player and we lost four good players.
"But one thing we've said all year long, I thought what made this team different is you can see something in them, the discipline and the togetherness," Pederson added. "I have told them all year long that this team has a better chance of winning a championship than last year's team. We are not going to win as many games because we are not as talented. But we really believed deep down that this team could win a championship just because of the (mental) makeup of this team."
If Lander can beat Rollins, they will play either Shaw or Pittsburg State Wednesday night at 8:30 p.m. on the CBS Sports Networtk. The national championship game will also be televised by the CBS Sports Network. If nothing else, this is a chance for the Lady Bearcats to play before a national TV audience.
"That's what we have talked about to the players," Pederson said. "I think the opportunity to play on national television would be pretty exciting."
Live stats and a live video broadcast of tonight's game can be found on the interactive bracket at NCAA.com right here.