Hanover College’s women celebrate winning the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament Sunday in Lexington, Ky. (Courier file photo by David Campbell)
Hanover College’s women celebrate winning the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament Sunday in Lexington, Ky. (Courier file photo by David Campbell)
Rarely has a team been so confident to face a top-5 opponent as Hanover's women are this weekend.

The Panthers will square off against third-ranked Ohio Northern to open the NCAA Division III National Basketball Tournament Friday in Holland, Mich.

While the two teams did not play this year they did square off each of the previous three years. And in each of those games Hanover came out on top, including 76-62 in Ada, Ohio, last year.

That level of success has the Panthers believing they can advance in the NCAA tournament for the first time ever, even if it means knocking off one of the best team's in the nation.

"I think we were a little surprised when we saw Ohio Northern because we've played them so much," Hanover coach Molly Jones said. "I'm sure that when (Ohio Northern coach Michele Durand) saw it she had to be like, 'Hanover, really?'"

The two teams will play in Michigan on the campus of Hope College, which will also serve as the host for the Final Four later in the month. Hope, ranked No. 2, will take on Wheaton (Ill.) in game two on Friday.

Ohio Northern, a member of the North Coast Athletic Conference, is making its fifth appearance in the national tournament and first since 1989.

The Polar Bears are 26-1 overall and have won 25 consecutive games. The squad earned the NCAC regular-season title with an 18-0 mark and grabbed the league's tournament crown with a 73-46 rout of Otterbein (Ohio).

While Jones has not seen ONU in person this year, she is more than familiar with the team and knows that, confidence aside, it will not be an easy game.

"(Ohio Northern) is obviously very good this year. They've won 25 in a row and I'm sure they are very confident going into the tournament," Jones said. "I haven't had a chance to see them play yet but looking at the teams they have beaten they are obviously a very good team."

Ohio Northern is led by junior forward Cenzie Yoder and senior forwards Joanna Snyder and Morgan Dumbaugh.

Yoder leads the Polar Bears with 14.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per contest. Snyder adds 13.5 points and 6.0 boards while Dumbaugh adds 11.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per outing.

Ohio Northern's only setback came to Washington (Mo.) early in the season and the Polar Bears haven't stumbled since.

Hanover is also coming into the tournament hot, although not 25-straight wins hot.

The Panthers have won four-straight and eight of their last nine to reach 20 wins for a fourth-straight season. Last weekend Hanover won three games in three days to claim the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship - the clincher came on an impressive 83-66 win over top-seeded Transylvania on Sunday.

The Panthers are playing their best basketball at the right time and coupled with the familiarity of their opponent, are as confident as they have ever been for an NCAA opener.

Senior Courtney Prater, who was a sophomore at Anderson University the last time Hanover reached the NCAA Tournament, is the Panthers' leading scorer and rebounder at 16.3 points and 7.0 rebounds, respectively. She is just the third player in school history to tally more than 1,200 career points (1,289) and 700 rebounds (764).

Sophomore Alicia Hopkins averages 12.8 points, 4.6 steals, 3.5 assists and 3.4 rebounds per outing. She set a school single-season record this year with 128 steals.

Arguably the team's best player over the past few weeks has been senior Katie Gahimer. The North Decatur High School product is averaging 10.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest but has nearly doubled that output during a span that saw her set three personal bests in scoring in five games.

Gahimer torched Transylvania for 28 points in the HCAC championship to earn tournament Most Valuable Player honors. According to Jones, it was simply a matter of instilling some confidence in her 5-foot-10 forward.

"The talent has always been there and we knew that Katie was capable of playing like she has been," Jones said. "She is just so confident and loose right now and it shows."

Gahimer's rise has come at the time when Prater's numbers have dipped as senior has battled a sore finger. Still, Prater had a huge game of 26 points and 14 rebounds in an HCAC semifinal win over Franklin and torched Ohio Northern for 23 points and 13 rebounds in their meeting last year.

Of course Hanover's postseason experience adds to the team's confidence. The Panthers are making their second NCAA appearance in three years and Jones believes memories of 2011 can only help.

"We have two seniors and a junior who were on that team and any experience will help," Jones said. "I think there was a bit of an 'awe' factor the last time and I don't think it will be as bad this time."

Friday's other game will feature one of the nation's elite programs in Hope College.

The Flying Dutch are making their 14th appearance in the NCAA Division III tournament. They have a 26-1 record this season and are ranked No. 2 in the nation in both the USA Today and d3hoops.com polls.

Hope posted a 15-1 record to tie Calvin (Mich.) for the MIAA's regular-season crown. The Flying Dutch defeated Calvin 62-59 to win the conference's tournament title.

Hope enters the tournament riding a 12-game winning streak. The Flying Dutch have not lost since a 64-59 setback to Calvin on Jan. 12.

Senior forward Courtney Cust leads Hope with 12.0 points per outing and scored a career-high 29 points in the MIAA championship game. Senior guard Liz Ellis adds 10.3 points per game.

Hope has appeared in the NCAA Division III championship game three times. The Flying Dutch fell to Washington 65-59 in the 2010 finals. They edged St. John Fisher (N.Y.) 65-63 to win the 1990 title and defeated Southern Maine 69-56 in the 2006 championship.

Wheaton is in the NCAA field for the eighth time and first since 2007. The Thunder enter the tourney with a 22-5 overall record, including a second-place finish in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin with an 11-3 mark.

Wheaton has split its last four games, including a 61-52 loss to Cathage (Wis.) in the finals of the CCIW tournament.

Senior guard Brooke Olson leads the Thunder in scoring with 16.0 points per outing. Junior forward Maris Hovee ranks first on the squad with 9.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots per contest.

The Hanover/Ohio Northern and Hope/Wheaton winners will meet in the second round on Saturday, March 2.