SIOUX CITY, Iowa – After watching Saint Francis freshman Paige Frisch torch Cardinal Stritch from long range in Monday's NAIA Division II Women's Basketball Tournament semifinal at the Tyson Events Center, as well Cougar guard Skylarr Shurn miss 6 of 7 shots against the Wolves, you couldn't have blamed College of the Ozarks coach Becky Vest if her scouting report for Tuesday's championship game was tilted toward Frisch.
But that's the beauty of Saint Francis. On any given night, it could have been – and almost always was - a different player's time to not just play well, but play great.
Shurn shook off her shooting blues from Monday and scored 33 points in leading the Cougars to a 75-68 victory over the Bobcats and claim the program's first national championship in front of 1,350 fans.
“It just shows that we are the best team in the country,” Saint Francis coach Gary Andrews said of his team's depth. “To go 38-0, we proved it on the floor. I'm really proud of our kids.”
The Cougars are the first unbeaten team to win the national title since local favorite Morningside did it in 2009, and the second consecutive Crossroads League squad (Indiana Wesleyan a year ago) to win the title.
The fact that Shurn shined 24 hours after Frisch did, plus throw in that Frisch didn't even attempt a shot in the title game after sinking five three-pointers in the semifinal, makes perfect sense for those familiar with the Cougars.
Each of the five starters (Kalah Baer, Brooke Ridley, Jenelle Wilson, along with Shurn and Frisch) proved capable of leading this team throughout its five tournament games. The Cougars were an opposing team's scouting nightmare.
“That's what I love about this team,” Baer explained. “We're very unpredictable. You never know who is going to show up. And whoever doesn't show up, we just make sure to take the load on us.”
Ridley injured her ankle so severely Monday, Andrews didn't even know if she'd be able to “show up.” The coach said late Monday that there was “probably a 30 percent” chance that she'd even play Tuesday, let alone play well. The Bishop Luers graduate not only played all 40 minutes in the championship game, but finished with 13 points and 14 rebounds.
“(My ankle) doesn't hurt at all right now,” Ridley said during the post game celebration.
Ridley was consistently great throughout the tournament. She finished with averages of 13.8 points per game, 10.4 rebounds and 3.6 blocks, and all of that included being limited in time after suffering the ankle injury early in the second half of the semifinal.
Like Ridley, Wilson and Baer proved consistently steady in their production, with Wilson scoring, while Baer was boarding.
Wilson scored between 10 and 19 points each game and against Ozarks, she and Shurn attacked the Bobcat defense Tuesday with a vengeance, getting to the free throw line a combined 23 times.
Aside from a four rebound performance in the tournament opener against Ashford, Baer grabbed at least eight rebounds every time out after averaging less than seven during the regular season. She closed her career by playing her best basketball. The Leo graduate blew up on Southwestern (Kansas) for a career-high 25 points in the quarterfinal, and helped Saint Francis pound Ozarks on the glass 43-32 by pulling down a dozen boards.
“Our team is very good at playing together,” Baer said. “We're very good at passing the ball and very good at just feeding off of each other. When we know someone isn't doing good, then we do good.”
As it turned out, Saint Francis does better than anyone else.
Shurn was recognized following the championship game with the Tournament Most Valuable Player award.
The senior guard not only dropped 33 on Ozarks, but also had a stellar game (27 points) against Siena Heights earlier in the tournament.
“Tonight's game was the way that Skylarr's been playing for us most of the year,” Andrews said. “I knew that she'd be able to bounce back.”
Shurn averaged over 21 points through the five games.
Also being honored were Wilson (second team), Ridley (first team), and Andrews (Coach of the Year).
“To go 38-0 is just an amazing accomplishment,” Andrews said.