Why you should care
Because she plays like one of the most prolific scorers in men’s basketball history.
A glance at the women’s Associated Press poll of the top 25 basketball teams in the country reveals the usual suspects. At the top: undefeated UConn, winners of the past four national titles. Next: Baylor, the last program not named UConn to win a national title, and then Notre Dame, the national runner-up four times in the past six seasons. Familiar stuff. The women’s Final Four is often dominated by the same programs.
But tucked toward the bottom of the women’s top 25 is one school that bucks that trend: Drake University is 28–4 and ranked 20th in the nation. Meet this year’s Cinderella.
A pending NCAA tournament bid for the small private school in Des Moines, Iowa, would be its first since 2007. It was set in motion five years ago, when newly hired head coach Jennie Baranczyk got a phone call from a high school kid from the Kansas City suburbs. “I accept,” Lizzy Wendell said that day. “You — you what? ” the coach remembers replying. “You know,” the now-22-year-old Wendell said. “I accept the offer.” Both Wendell and Baranczyk tell OZY of the moment in similar terms: It was under the radar. No big ceremony at the high school gym, no trio of hats sitting in front of Wendell, with coaches on edge to see which hat Wendell chose. “Most people make commitments a big deal, but that’s just her,” Baranczyk says.
Now a senior, Wendell is a 2,000-point career scorer, coming second in Drake history and ranking third among active NCAA players. She and fellow senior Caitlin Ingle, who is among the nation’s leaders in assists, have rebirthed a struggling program. The two lost six of their first seven conference games their freshman year. Since then, they’ve lost just 10 conference games. A future in the WNBA or abroad is possible, guesses Doug Feinberg, the national women’s basketball writer for the Associated Press; only a handful of mid-major women’s players have gone pro in the U.S. The elementary education major isn’t, for now, sure of her future. She has to student-teach in the fall and may continue as an educator thereafter.
Six-foot-tall Wendell displays enviable efficiency on the court — and knows how to earn a quiet 20 points.
Feinberg calls Drake the “only consistent mid-major” school to occupy a spot in the top 25 this season. He chalks the success up to the senior class — Ingle and Wendell. “The two of them have forged quite a bond. Caitlin throws passes no one expects anyone to catch, and there’s Lizzy, who catches it and is ready to score.” Like in men’s college hoops, mid-major schools like Drake struggle for national relevance. The disparity is even more pronounced in the women’s game, where the talent pool doesn’t run as deep as the men’s.
Wendell came into Drake as just a shooter, but she’s developed into a versatile scorer. As a freshman, she played “like there was an invisible fence around the paint,” Baranczyk says. “You see her now and you’d never guess that would be a possibility.” Today, she can pick apart defenses in myriad ways, from three and from midrange, driving and in the post. Her style recalls Creighton’s Doug McDermott, one of the most prolific scorers in men’s basketball history.
Yet Wendell’s no ball hog. With her strawberry-blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, six-foot-tall Wendell displays enviable efficiency on the court — and knows how to earn a quiet 20 points. She has bought into her coach’s uptempo, Golden State Warriors–esque philosophy of moving the ball around as much as possible. Her coach loves to tell a story about a practice before this season, when freshman guard Becca Hittner passed to the team’s star instead of taking an open shot. Wendell passed it right back to her: “You’re not helping any of us if you’re not taking that shot,” Wendell said.
And still, the biggest successes in college ball are always measured by a team’s record in March. Herein lies the challenge for Wendell and Drake: They must attain a good seed in the NCAA tournament. Right now, they look to enter as the eighth seed, which means they’ll have to face a dominant top seed in their second game. That could spell an early turn back into a pumpkin for this fairy tale. Feinberg notes that upsets are less common for women’s teams than for men’s — but, he says, “take it one game at a time with them.”
Born and raised in Blue Springs, Missouri, the middle child of nine (eight of whom are girls), Wendell grew up emulating her favorite player, the former WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, and playing one-on-one in their front yard against an older sister. “She’d elbow me, I’d get mad and cry, but my dad would never call fouls,” Wendell says. The family spotted her talent when she was in third grade and joined her older sister’s YMCA team. She fit right in with the older girls. The Wendells often prayed over Advent candles in the weeks before Christmas; the moment the prayer was over, the kids would race to see who could blow out the Advent candles the fastest. In the Wendell household, everything was a competition.
A few weeks ago, on a Monday — a recovery day — Ingle was doing a workout with five other teammates in the pool, while Wendell was in the weight room. A teammate checked her phone and showed it to Wendell: The poll was out; Drake was ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 2001. They rushed to the pool. “No way!” Ingle yelled. “You’re lying!” For Wendell and Ingle, it was proof — they’d made the right choice.