Halfhill, Falcons focus on NCAA bid

Most who play college basketball complete their final game, not to mention take their final exam, pack their last box and perhaps place one more late-night pizza order, without ever playing a minute in the NCAA tournament.

As much attention as we lavish on a few weeks in March and a few days in April, the tournament is about as much a part of the lives of basketball players at most of the 347 schools competing in Division I as the first-class cabin is to an airport gate full of travelers.

It's there. It's hard to miss. It gets special attention. But you know when it comes right down to it that the heated peanuts aren't for you.

It's a little different for Bowling Green senior Jillian Halfhill.

To reach the NCAA tournament, her top-seeded Falcons might need to win the MAC tournament this weekend in Cleveland. Bowling Green entered the AP Top 25 on Monday for the first time this season, but no MAC team, even one with a strong RPI, is going to take an NCAA at-large bid for granted.

And like so many of her peers, Halfhill has never played a minute in the big tournament.

The difference is that unlike most of her peers, she knows exactly what she has been missing.

It went as "0+" in the column in the box score devoted to minutes played. That's how the official timekeeping records Halfhill's NCAA tournament career to this point in time, the product of a 10-second appearance at the end of a 69-58 first-round loss against Georgia Tech in 2011. No sooner had the horn signaled the substitution that ushered her and a handful of others onto the court than it brought the game, and her equivalent of an uncredited cameo in a movie, to a close.

She was a freshman who played barely 100 minutes all season back then, a point guard who had to wait her turn for a program that produced good ones almost as often as Apple turned out phones, from Lindsay Austin to Kate Achter to Tracy Pontius.

Now she's the starter on a team that went 27-3 in the regular season, including a 17-1 record in the MAC to win the outright regular-season conference championship. She leads Bowling Green in minutes, assists, 3-pointers and 3-point accuracy and is second in scoring. At 5-foot-6, she is fourth on the team at four rebounds per game and second in free throws.

"She's extremely mature; she's old for her age," Bowling Green coach Jennifer Roos said. "We need her on the floor to be successful. She's turned into the epitome of a true point guard. She knows when to pass. She knows who has the hot hand. She knows when she needs to take it herself. She can make play calls on her own after she reads what the defense is doing to us. Each possession, she's able to pick up defensive calls by the other teams."

She has always been comfortable playing conductor, all the way back to when she was the little guard at Canfield High School near Youngstown, Ohio, and ran varsity with older sister Bryanne, who went on to score more than 1,000 points at the University of Chicago, and former Pitt and Northwestern forward Kate Popovec. That is still part of her game, if not in sky-high assist totals then in the way teammates Alexis Rogers and Erica Donovan get the ball where they need it to go to work off the dribble, the way she thinks about assist-turnover ratio or the way Bowling Green controlled tempo in wins against Central Michigan and Ohio State alike.

What changed this year was a confidence in her own shot, the one that helped her average nearly 20 points per game in high school after her sister and Popovec left.

"I didn't trust my shot as much," Halfhill said of her learning curve in college. "And then last year I probably shot four or five times a game. Then this year it's like, 'Why the heck haven't I been shooting?' I think I would go back and change that for sure."

All the same, it is hard to watch her play and think she left much on the table, that she will have regrets later in life about potential squandered. Most everything she could be, she is.

This is the weekend for players like Halfhill and players like James Madison's Kirby Burkholder, Navy's Jade Geif, Florida Gulf Coast's Sarah Hansen and Middle Tennessee's Ebony Rowe, all seniors on teams that are the top seeds in their respective conference tournaments. It holds the same potential, albeit at the expense of the aforementioned in some cases, for players like Saint Francis' Alli Williams, Troy's Joanna Harden and Southern Miss' Jamierra Faulkner, senior standouts on teams looking to take advantage of the second chance offered by a conference tournament.

Whether or not such stakes attached to one or two games is the best system to reward their work, it is the system.

Nothing that happens this week can diminish what any of them achieved this season or in their careers. But one win can mean everything if it means minutes in the NCAA tournament.

"I don't know if I could be satisfied unless we win the MAC tournament and go to the NCAA tournament," Halfhill said of her time at Bowling Green. "It would be hard to say that right now I was satisfied, but I mean, I've made progress over the years. I like that. But at the same time, I still want to make more progress."