By Jake Knabel, assistant to the media coordinator
SIOUX CITY, Iowa - (Box Score) It's near impossible to rattle three-time defending champion Northwestern (Iowa) on a court that has become like a second home. The seventh-ranked Red Raiders pushed their national tournament win streak to 18 with laser-like second-half efficiency on the way to a mild, 87-77, upset of No. 2 Saint Francis (Ind.) on Saturday. The win pushes Northwestern (26-7) to the semifinals of the State Farm-NAIA Division II Women's Basketball National Championships for the sixth-straight year.
"We're excited about today," Red Raider head coach Chris Yaw said. "We found ourselves in a great battle, particularly in that first half and through most of that second half until the very end. We're excited with the way we played today. I'm most excited with the heart. This team showed a tremendous amount of heart in the first half for sure."
The battle between the five-time national champion Red Raiders and the Lady Cougars (32-4), looking for their first ever national title, remained tight throughout the early part of the second stanza after a 36-all tie at the half. That was until Northwestern surged with a 13-0 run to take control.
"We took some punches and were down early, but we battled back to just be even at half," Yaw said. "And then we came out in the second half and were the aggressors and did not let the halftime break take away the momentum we had. I'm just proud of them."
The spurt featured a picture-perfect fast break in which Kendra De Jong fed Allie Dunkelberger for the easy lay in and culminated with a Karen Hutson bucket in the paint at the 3:04 mark. Northwestern led 75-61 at that point, vanquishing the Cougars' chances of a semifinal appearance for the first time since 2006.
A key point in the intense battle occurred 8:21 mark of the second half when De Jong drove to the lane and was originally called for a charge. The call was reversed and the Saint Francis bench was tagged with a technical foul on top of it. De Jong then made 3 of 4 free throws for a 59-56 Northwestern advantage.
They physical game was right up the alley of a Northwestern team that led the powerful GPAC in rebound margin and loves to play hard-nosed basketball. The Red Raiders outrebounded the Cougars 49-36.
"Give Northwestern credit. They're a great team," Saint Francis head coach Gary Andrews said. "They're big, strong and well-coached. They're going to be tough to beat here."
Saint Francis raced out to leads of 11-1 and 19-6 before Northwestern, behind its large contingent of fans at the Tyson Events Center, finally got rolling. The Red Raiders got right back into it by getting hot from long range as they knocked down treys on three of four possessions (by three different players) to get within 22-15.
Northwestern's Allie Dunkelberger drilled a 3-pointer at the 5:45 mark to provide her team its first lead at 26-24. The 24-5 Red Raider run was complete after Kendra De Jong's layup off a beautiful find from Dunkelberger and then a Mackenzie Small offensive rebound and putback that made it 30-24.
The bright lights of the national championship stage failed to deter Saint Francis freshman Brooke Ridley, who finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds. The Cougars had to play the final 5:25 without the services of Ridley due to her being whistled for her fifth foul.
De Jong, a double-double machine, posted 21 points and 13 rebounds. Hutson tied Ridley for a game high with 22 points of her own while making 10-for-12 from the free throw line. Dunkelberger chipped in 17 points.
Northwestern moves on to play Monday's first semifinal contest against Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference champion and sixth-ranked Davenport (Mich.) at 6 p.m. The Panthers squeaked by Eastern Oregon, 62-60, in Saturday's first quarterfinal game.