Allison McCombe Small ’96 couldn’t shake the feeling. She remembered the one-point loss to Ohio Wesleyan in the 1993 NCAC tournament semifinal, making a steal in the closing seconds but failing to convert it into points. And she still remembers the next day, sitting in the stands as two other teams competed for the tournament title. “I’ll never forget sitting there watching it—it burned,” she says.
Driven by that disappointment, the women of the 1993-94 Denison basketball team won their first conference title the next year—and by extension, earned the program’s first NCAA tournament berth. The Big Red started just 6-7 that season, but the momentum of a nine-game win streak carried over into the conference tournament. Waiting for them in the NCAC final was Wittenberg, which had won both previous meetings that season; this time, Denison rolled to a 15-point victory that clinched an automatic berth in the Big Dance.
Their NCAA experience was brief, ending with a first-round loss to Penn State Behrend, a fact that does little to diminish the memory of what that team accomplished. It was the rare star-studded squad on which the contributions felt balanced: Senior Christi Clay ’94 earned NCAC player of the year and All-American honors, while McCombe, Sarah Bennett ’95, and Bridget Colleran ’96 all captured all-conference honors. There are plenty of ways to measure that team’s legacy today: Coach Sara Lee, then in her fifth season, recently wrapped her 30th; McCombe and Small still hold the top two spots on Denison’s career scoring list. But McCombe’s memories today have less to do with numbers than with feelings—happy ones, in this case. “We just had a lot of scrappy people who cared,” she says. “And we had fun.”