Sure, the Cal Poly Pomona women's basketball team has won 24 of its last 25 games to reach the NCAA Division II playoffs for an unprecedented sixth straight year.
But Bronco Coach Darlene May is not alone in thinking that the lone loss--78-63 to Cal State Los Angeles on Feb. 6--has played the most significant role in her team's success.
"Psychologically, that may have been the best thing that could have happened to us," May said. "It taught us a lesson that I tell them every game: You have to play tough against every opponent.
"Now when I say it they listen. When we're not playing well, I can always say, 'Remember Feb. 6.' "
Senior forward Debra Larsen does not need to be reminded.
"It was a difficult time for us," Larsen recalled. "We had played five games in nine days and were kind of tired. The loss helped us pick up our intensity. We realized we couldn't just take the court and expect to win."
The Broncos, Division II national champions for the past two years, have won six straight since the loss to improve their record to 26-2 and earn a bye in the first round of the NCAA playoffs.
Pomona, ranked No. 2 in Division II behind Delta State of Mississippi, will play host to the winner of Saturday's Eastern Montana (18-10) at Cal State Chico (22-6) game in the NCAA Western Regional final at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Kellogg Gym.
While the loss may have motivated the Broncos recently, May said it has been defense that has helped the team all along.
"I think our team has become very defensive-minded," May said. "When we play good defense, everything else seems to come together."
"I think the key to our team is aggressive defense," added Larsen, a 5-10 all-conference performer who has starred on the two championship teams. "If we play aggressive defense it picks up our offense."
The defense may have been at its best last week when the Broncos won the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. postseason tournament for the second straight year. Pomona defeated Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 72-49, in the opener and crushed Cal State Northridge, 80-46, in the title game.
"We put together two pretty good defensive games," May said. "We beat a pretty good Northridge team, and I think you have to credit our defense"
Another factor recently has been the play of the youngest starters, freshman center Niki Bracken (6-2) and sophomore forward Marcine Edmonds (6-0). Both were outstanding in the CCAA tournament. Bracken, who starred at Compton High, had 38 points and 17 rebounds, and Edmonds added 32 points and 20 rebounds.
"I felt (at the start of the season) if we could get good performances from Marcine and Niki we could be where we are," May said. "I wasn't as concerned with the other three starters. If Marcine and Niki continue to play like that, it helps our chances 100%."
"I think the younger players are peaking at the right time," Larsen said. "They really helped us over the weekend."
The Broncos needed help from Edmonds and Bracken last week because Larsen was hindered by a severe ankle sprain suffered in practice before the Northridge game. Larsen, who averages 17.5 points and 11.7 rebounds to lead the team in both categories, still played most of the game and had 6 points and 13 rebounds.
"I felt psychologically she had to be on the court for us to win," May said. "She's probably one of the toughest athletes I've ever been associated with as a player or a coach. If it was you or me, we'd be in the hospital in a cast. But she played. That's what kind of a player she is.
"I can't think of anybody who would have played in that game with an injury like that. You should have seen her ankle."
Larsen, who sprained the same ankle in December, says the injury has limited her practice this week but expects to play Tuesday.
"I'm getting therapy," she said. "I hope it won't be a problem. I didn't have as much mobility (against Northridge) as I did before."
In addition to Larsen, Pomona has been led by all-conference 5-6 senior point guard Michelle McCoy. An outstanding floor leader and smooth ball handler, McCoy averages 14.4 points, 7.7 assists and 3.7 rebounds. She is the CCAA's career assist leader with 182 in conference games.
"I think she has done a real good job," May said. "She usually makes two or three bad passes a game, but that's not bad when you consider how much she handles the ball."
The Broncos also start 5-8 guard Paula Tezak, a junior who averages 7.6 points and 7.6 rebounds. May said Tezak may be the team's most overlooked player.
"I know you don't look at Paula in the same breath as you would Michelle or Debra, but I see what she does for us," May said. "Her best thing is offensive rebounding, and if you kept statistics you would probably see that she's our leader."
If Pomona wins Tuesday, the Broncos will play the host for the quarterfinals March 13. That could be against third-ranked North Dakota State, which lost to the Broncos in the Division II title game last year.
May probably wouldn't have said it a few weeks ago, but she thinks her team is in top form now. Good enough to make it to the Division II final four in Springfield, Mass., for the third straight year.
"I think they've proven that they belong in Springfield," she said. "They just have to come to play. I think we're one of the top eight teams in the division. We just can't afford to overlook anybody."
If the Broncos do, May can use their loss to Cal State Los Angeles as a concrete reminder of what can happen.