SAN ANTONIO — Former Bismarck Century star Lauren Ware didn’t take long to ascend to the biggest stage in NCAA Division I women’s basketball. Ware, a true freshman, has played a reserve role for the Arizona Wildcats, who are making their first Final Four appearance in program history.
Ware has seen action for the Wildcats in each of their four previous NCAA tournament games heading into Friday’s national semifinal.
“This is what I came to Arizona for, every kid dreams of this,” Ware said. “This a great experience for me as well, just being a freshman and having this experience going into the next few years of my college years, it will be amazing.”
The Wildcats (20-5) are scheduled to play Connecticut (28-1) at 8:30 p.m. Friday, April 2, at the Alamodome. The winner plays for the national title on Sunday April 4. Led by legendary head coach Geno Auriemma, UConn is playing in a 13th consecutive Final Four.
“To be watching one of my former players play against Geno Auriemma, It’s something you never think is ever going to happen,” said recently retired Bismarck Century head girls basketball coach Ron Metz, who coached Ware in high school.
The 6-foot-5 Ware has averaged around 10 minutes per game during the NCAA tournament. She scored five points with four rebounds and two blocked shots in an opening-round victory against Stony Brook. The Wildcats scored a 66-53 victory against Indiana on Monday, March 29, to earn a spot in the Final Four.
Joe Ware, Lauren’s father, said he's thankful his daughter is getting a chance to contribute on a Final Four team, especially after Lauren missed her senior girls basketball season at Century due to a knee injury.
“It’s good to have her back out there competing and to be doing it on this stage,” Joe said. “A lot of freshmen sit and watch, especially on a good team. This Arizona team, they’ve got a bunch of veteran players.”
Lauren Ware said she’s excited to be part of an ascending program, which won six games during the 2017-18 season. Head coach Adia Barnes has led the Wildcats to three consecutive 20-win seasons since.
“Seeing this program grow has been amazing,” Lauren said. “When I was (being) recruited to come here, they had won like six games out of the whole season, they had a losing record. Seeing how far this program has come and what Adia has done with the program is really amazing. Being able to be part of that is really cool.”
Ware has played in 25 games this season, averaging 4.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocked shots in 16.5 minutes per game. She’s been among the Wildcats top three players off the bench in minutes played all season.
“I didn’t really expect to play a lot of minutes,” Ware said of her first college season. “Being on the team and just being in the rotation, I think is something that’s good for me to get that experience, especially now when it’s tournament time.”
Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, all NCAA tournament games have been played in San Antonio. The Wildcats, a No. 3 seed, have been in San Antonio since March 17 and their first tournament game was March 22 against Stony Brook.
“This year has been a little weird with the tournament and everything, we’re basically in a bubble so it was coming here and having to be kind of isolated,” Lauren said. “It’s definitely been a little weird for sure. … My family has been able to come and watch a couple games, but I’m not able to be in contact with them, see them after the games or anything.”
Metz said it’s been surreal to track Lauren and the Wildcats during their run to the women’s Final Four.
“It’s a very good moment for Lauren obviously, but also for North Dakota and girls basketball,” said Metz, who led Century to six North Dakota Class A state titles before he retired after this past season. “It’s been great to be able to watch. I always watch the tournament, but now I have a special connection.”
Lauren planned to play both volleyball and women’s basketball during her first year at Arizona, but she decided to focus on basketball after the volleyball season was moved to the spring due to COVID-19. Now, Lauren and the Wildcats get a chance to knock off UConn, a No. 1 seed and perennial power.
“I don’t know if she can quite wrap herself around either,” Joe said. “It’s not a normal thing. There are a lot of college players who can attest to that, to never make a Final Four, and to do it in your first year is kind of special.”
Lauren said the Wildcats welcome the challenge of playing the Huskies, who are led by freshman guard Paige Bueckers. Bueckers, from Hopkins, Minn., is the first freshman to win the Associated Press national player of the year award for women’s basketball.
“They’re a great team,” Lauren said. “These are the kinds of games that we are excited for. We’re the underdogs, we’ve kind of been the underdogs this whole tournament. … I think we’re excited for the challenge. We are coming in with really nothing to lose, so we can just kind of play free and play our game.”