Growing up, Emma Capps spent a lot of time on the basketball court. Around the neighborhood, Capps could be found anywhere there was a basketball rim, working on her dribbling skills and putting up as many shots as possible. She was determined to get better.

As shot after shot would go in, a young Capps would allow herself to dream. Like most young basketball players, she dreamed of making big shots to win games. She dreamed one day she would play college basketball. And, she was sure, she would one day play in the NCAA Tournament. 

Dreams do come true.

Capps and her Gardner-Webb University Bulldogs will open the 2023 national championship tournament against the University of Utah March 17 in Salt Lake City. Tipoff for March Madness is tentatively scheduled for 8:30 p.m. CST.

“Your No. 1 dream when you’re growing up has to be to be a Division I basketball player because you have to be that to even get to the tournament,” Capps said. “Because my mom got to the NCCA Tournament when she was in college, I guess I always thought it was possible, that you could do it with a lot of hard work, with the right team and the right coaches.” 

Capps, the former Stone Memorial star, is a junior standout at Gardner-Webb in Boiling Springs, NC. She has started two games this season and has played in most of her team’s 33 games despite battling some illness. As a team, the Bulldogs head into the tournament at 29-4, setting a Big South Conference record for most wins in a season. GWU’s magical run has included 21 straight victories. 

“By winning our conference tournament and being an automatic qualifier, when the buzzer went off at the end of that game we knew we had done what we had sat out to do,” Capps said. “Getting to the tournament was our goal from the beginning of the season. We wanted to be Big South champs and go to the NCAA’s. 

“So in the moment, I think we were all really excited we had completed the goal we had set for ourselves. I think in the moment of winning, there was a lot more excitement than anything else.” 

Gardner-Webb opened the season with a loss to Clemson and ended up finishing its non-conference schedule with an 8-4 slate. However, the Bulldogs turned on the fire after returning from Christmas break. GWU is heading into tonight’s matchup with one of the longest winning streaks in college basketball. 

“We have a really good team,” Capps said. “It has been really cool to see the growth we’ve had as a team. We played a tough schedule that included Clemson, Alabama and SMU. I think we’ve grown a lot.” 

And she said the Bulldogs are coming into the tournament after a great week of practice. 

“We’re on the right track and we’re just trying to get ourselves as prepared as we can be,” Capps said. “None of us have played on this large of a stage, but we have coaches who have and they’re doing a good job of preparing us for what we’re about to do.” 

Utah is 25-4 on the season and comes into the game as the tournament’s No. 2 seed. The two teams have never faced each other. The winner will play the winner of the Princeton/NC State contest March 19 in the Round of 32. 

“We’ve had a great season so far, and I think winning a couple of games in the tournament would be awesome,” Capps said. “Mainly, going out, playing hard and having fun would be great. If we do that, I think winning will come along with it. It is March Madness, you never know what will happen.” 

Capps will be able to share her tournament journey with her father, Stone Memorial boys coach Neil Capps. Her mother, Jessica, and her brother, Cade, will be watching the game on television. Jessica Capps was an outstanding college player in her own right at Middle Tennessee State University, and Cade is one of the premiere sophomores in the state. 

“My parents have pushed me to get to where I am, and I think when you reach one goal you want to work harder to get to the next one,” Emma said. “Definitely, with my dad and my mom, we joke that we’re a basketball family through and through.

“Growing up in this family, you dream of getting to the NCAA Tournament, You set your goals when you’re younger to play in the NCAA Tournament, and it is just such a cool thing to be able to do it. It is definitely motivating.”  

Emma said it would be special if she and Gardner-Webb could pull out a victory this weekend in Utah and be able to share that moment with her father.

“It would be great to get a win with him here,” Emma said. “Our family is super close, and basketball is one thing we’ve bonded over. Getting to experience that with him, and to know my mom and brother are watching it on television, would be just so cool.”

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