SIOUX CITY, Iowa – In the final 2:33 of its semifinal game with Cardinal Stritch Monday at the Tyson Events Center, Saint Francis played about as poorly as it has in weeks, as it tried to preserve a 65-60 lead.
During that stretch, the No. 1 seed in this week's NAIA Division II Women's Basketball National Tournament didn't appear to be the top team anywhere, let alone the nation. The Cougars allowed the Wolves opportunities to grab five offensive rebounds, they missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw twice, the back end another time, and turned the ball over three times.
Oh, and one other thing, Saint Francis won the game 68-64.
“We just wanted to hang on,” Cougar coach Gary Andrews said.
The Cougars may not have played like the top seed in the tournament during that segment of the game, but given the overall circumstances that the Cougars had to deal with Monday, the fact that they are the nation's last unbeaten squad is precisely why they won the game. If they weren't a great team, there is no way they could have advanced to tonight's national championship game (8 p.m. EST, ESPN3) against the College of the Ozarks (27-9).
Saint Francis (37-0) will seek to win its first national championship in program history, and tonight will be its first appearance in the title game since 1999.
For the first time in four tournament games, the Cougars were actually challenged. After digging itself a 13-point first half deficit, Cardinal Stritch (27-7) did what no other team has been able to do against Saint Francis, which is to rally against it.
“We just didn't get any rebounds,” Andrews said. “They are big and strong. They are stronger than us and their size and physicality gave us a little bit of trouble.”
The Wolves outrebounded Saint Francis 39-32 (including 16-11 offensively), and after settling down midway through the first half, they forced Saint Francis to turn the ball over with more frequency and an 11-2 run got Cardinal Stritch back into the game.
But with just over 12 minutes remaining in the game, the Wolves had a golden opportunity to put the Cougars down, as Saint Francis sophomore forward Brooke Ridley had to leave the game with an ankle injury. But the Cougars held on over the final portion of the game for two reasons: mental toughness and depth.
“I got a little more nervous,” Saint Francis senior Jenelle Wilson said of losing Ridley. “Brooke is a very big key player to our team.”
Not only was Saint Francis having to deal without arguably its best player in this tournament, but the Cougars' leading scorer, Skylarr Shurn, was struggling offensively. Shurn finished with just one make in seven shot attempts, but this team showed that it didn't get to 37-0 on the shoulders of two players.
Wilson hit 3 of 4 from long range and finished with 15 points, while senior center Kalah Baer continued to have a marvelous tournament and chipped in 16 points and nine boards. But Cardinal Stritch was really done in by the performance of someone it more than likely never envisioned hurting it.
Cougar freshman Paige Frisch entered the game averaging just over five points per game, as the Norwell High School graduate had made just two shots and scored six points in the three previous games combined.
She had that many against the Wolves in less than five minutes.
Frisch sank five 3-point shots and finished with 15 points.
“I was pretty cold,” Frisch said of her tournament up until Monday. “I said that I was going to switch it up. I wore different socks, a different sports bra, I was changing everything. I had to do something different out there.”
Frisch also grabbed five rebounds, including a couple late in the game which forced the Wolves to have to foul the Cougars.
Shurn didn't make many shots while being guarded, but got to the line with regularity. She hit 10 of her 12 free throws and finished with 12 points and also passed for seven assists.
Defensively, Wilson helped to limit the Wolves' all-time leading scorer. Julie Raeder is the top scorer and rebounder in Cardinal Stritich history, but managed just eight points and seven rebounds Monday.
“It's a great accomplishment, but we're not done,” Andrews said of advancing. “We've got to find a way to win (Tuesday).”
College of the Ozarks trailed No. 2-ranked Davenport 72-70 with 12 seconds remaining in its semifinal Monday, but got a 3-point shot to take the lead and followed that with a defensive rebound and free throws to eventually upset the Panthers 75-72.
Ridley needs “a miracle”
When Cougar sophomore forward Brooke Ridley went down with an injury to her left ankle midway through the second half Monday, Saint Francis lost more than just one of its five players on the floor. The Bishop Luers High School graduate has been tremendous throughout this tournament, as she averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds through the first three games. However, her status for the title game will be a game-time decision.
“It's kind of up in the air,” Andrews said. “I don't know, maybe a 30 percent chance (that she plays). It's hard to say. We'll see, it's probably too early to say. It'll probably be a miracle if she plays, but you never know.”