It seems like Michele Savage is an overnight success story.
After all, the former Northwestern all-American has quickly gained national attention as head coach at Davidson. This season, just her second on the job, she was named the Southern Conference coach of the year while guiding the Wildcats to their second postseason bid in history and a 22-win mark just one shy of the school record.
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But make no mistake, Savage took no shortcuts along the way. This is a coach who has paid her dues and spent years preparing for her shining moment.
"I've definitely had a lot of stops along the way," Savage said with a laugh.
Savage, a star at Westchester's Immaculate Heart of Mary High School in the late 1980s, spent 15 years as an assistant coach at four colleges before getting her shot as a head coach. Before Davidson, she was at Tulane for nine years, leading the team's scouting and recruiting efforts. Before that, she had two-year stints at Cornell, Toledo and Chicago State.
"I'd like to believe that good things happen to good people and that the harder you work, the longer you stay in this business," Savage said. "I have a lot of experiences to draw on. When you become comfortable and think you know it all, that's when things go south. I've just tried to stay ahead of the curve and work as hard as I can in the moment. I'm not always looking for the next best thing. I'm living in the moment and trying to do the best in the situation that I'm in.
"When you do the best you can where you are, people will take notice."
Thanks to Savage, Davidson is putting the rest of the Southern Conference on notice. The Wildcats had just 14 wins in her first season a year ago and won the regular-season league title this year.
Davidson, however, didn't win the conference tournament to secure an automatic NCAA Tournament berth, and on Thursday the Wildcats lost in the first round of the WNIT to James Madison (64-49). But Savage believes her team is on the right track.
"We have some nice pieces in place," Savage said. "I feel like I'm doing things the right way to develop our players and this program. (Winning the league coach of the year award) kind of validates what you're doing."
Savage, however, almost didn't do the one thing she ultimately became so good at.
She didn't grow up wanting to be a coach, nor did she groom herself in college to become one. Savage thought she was done with basketball when she left Northwestern.
"I was ready for basketball to be over and I was ready to move into a different phase of my life," Savage said. "I went into the business world (a finance company) and it turned out that I wasn't all that excited about that.
"I missed basketball, and I think I just needed a little break. I realized that I really do have a passion for the game of basketball and when I was approached with the opportunity to coach (at Chicago State), I jumped at it. I'm really glad I did, because I love this job. I love what I do, and how many people can say that?"
Two teams from Illinois made the WNIT field.
Illinois State is still playing after defeating Central Michigan 69-68 Thursday in first round action. A late three-pointer by junior Candace Sykes with 17 seconds left keyed the victory. The Redbirds (19-12) will host Villanova at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Meanwhile, Eastern Illinois also got a postseason WNIT invite, but lost to Texas Tech (85-71) in the first round.
Don't miss it:
Head to Allstate Arena Saturday afternoon for exciting first-round NCAA action in the women's tournament.
No. 2-seed Tennessee will take on No. 15 Tennessee-Martin at 3 p.m. About 30 minutes after that game, No. 7 DePaul will take the floor in front of the hometown crowd against No. 10 BYU.
NCAA women's games
No. 7-seed DePaul (22-10) vs. No. 10-seed BYU (26-6)
When: approximately 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Allstate Arena
First up: No. 2-seed Tennessee vs. No. 15-seed Tennessee-Martin at 3 p.m. in this NCAA first-round regional doubleheader.
The skinny: The gritty Blue Demons should be primed for the drama, intensity and adversity that comes with March Madness. The Blue Demons lost three starters and several reserves to injury and have played much of the season with a seven-player rotation. And yet, DePaul still managed 22 wins and a winning record in the rugged Big East. Guard Anna Martin has become the go-to player after all-American Keisha Hampton's season-ending knee injury. Martin leads the Big East in scoring at 19.1 points per game and has made 40 percent of her 3-pointers. The Blue Demons also boast the Big East's best rebounder in Katherine Harry (9.6) and the league's most efficient shooter in Jasmine Penny (58.4 percent). BYU's counter to Harry and Penny inside will be three players who are 6-feet or taller, including 6-foot-7 Jennifer Hamson and 6-foot-3 Kristen Riley, the team's leading scorer at 11.4 points per game. The Cougars, who won the West Coast Conference tournament, average 71.6 points per game and work well as a team, averaging nearly 20 assists per game.
Tickets: Start at $10.
Next: Winner gets the winner of the first game at Allstate between No. 2 Tennessee and No. 15 Tennessee-Martin in second-round action at 8 p.m. Monday at Allstate.
-- Patricia Babcock McGraw