March 12, 2012
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SIOUX CITY, Iowa – (Box Score) Northwestern (Iowa) was pegged No. 1 in the preseason coaches’ poll, then fell completely out of the Top 25 after it began its season with losses in four of its first eight games. The Red Raiders rebounded in a big way and will now enter the State Farm-NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship title game for the third-consecutive year.
Behind another stellar defensive effort, Northwestern knocked off Great Plains Athletic Conference rival Briar Cliff (Iowa) in a 79-67 triumph.
“It’s the fourth game of this tournament that our kids have just defended really, really well,” Red Raider head coach Chris Yaw said. “We stuck to who we are, just trying to make things difficult for our opponent as far as shooting the basketball, and then trying to do what we can to make sure they only get one shot at it. Our kids really continued to excel together.”
The two squads, who split a pair of regular-season meetings, seemed destined for another down-to-the-wire affair as the lead see-sawed back-and-forth until midway through the second half. That’s when Northwestern started its 17-0 run that decided the game.
A Kylie Dilla 3-pointer at the 15:10 mark of the second half staked the Chargers to a 49-46 lead. But Briar Cliff would not score another point until 7:18 remained, a span of nearly eight minutes, allowing the Red Raiders to build a comfortable lead.
A pair of Mel Babcock free throws and a 3-pointer by Mallory Cunnard began the Northwestern explosion and quickly put the Raiders back in front. Kendra De Jong took it from there, using her vast offensive ability in the paint as she scored twice in the paint and nailed two free throws to push the lead to 59-49.
Kami Kuhlmann stretched the Northwestern lead to 63-49 after her steals on consecutive Briar Cliff possessions led to four points of her own. A steal and a run out resulted in Kuhlmann being fouled and set to the line, where she made both free throws. The next theft led to a Kuhlmann baseline jumper that capped the 17-0 run at the 7:41 mark. From that point on, the Chargers got no closer than nine points.
Like most of the season, Northwestern stars De Jong and Kuhlmann battled it out for the team scoring lead. De Jong had a game-high 22 points and 14 rebounds, giving her a double-double in each of the team’s four games at the tournament.
Kuhlmann struggled with her shot early but caught fire and finished with 21 points. She also had six steals and three assists.
“We really thought if we could hold De Jong and Kuhlmann to 35 or less, we’d win,” Briar Cliff head coach Mike Power said. “But they got 43. They’re two really good players, and we didn’t do a good job on them.”
Briar Cliff was led by 15 points each from Kylie Dilla, Kelsey Evans and Mattie Murren. Evans went 6-for-6 with all 15 of her points in the first half. She was held to 0-for-3 shooting in the second half.
Northwestern now looks forward to Tuesday’s 8 p.m. championship game with College of the Ozarks (Mo.), televised live on CBS Sports Network. The Red Raiders’ four all-time national championships are the most in NAIA Division II women’s basketball history. Yaw is seeking his first title in his first season at the helm.