SIOUX CITY, Iowa – () Top-seeded Saint Francis (Ind.) punched its ticket to the championship final of the 2014 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship, presented by State Farm, Monday night with a 68-64 victory over fifth-seeded Cardinal Stritch (Wis.). The win puts the Cougars in the title game for the first time since 1999.
Saint Francis, who is the only remaining unbeaten team in NAIA Division II at 37-0, entered the game 1-1 all-time in the national championship semifinal, with its only previous victory coming against Central Methodist (Mo.), 96-78, in 1999. The Cougars are vying to become the first team to go unbeaten en route to a national championship since Morningside (Iowa) in 2009.
“It’s a great accomplishment, but we’re not done,” said Saint Francis head coach Gary Andrews. “We’ve got to find a way to win tomorrow night. It’s very rewarding. I just have to give our kids a lot of credit.”
Both teams alternated scoring over the opening three minutes until Saint Francis, sparked by two-pointer by Kalah Baer, used an 17-4 run to take what proved to be its largest lead of the game, 24-11, midway through the opening half. Baer and Paige Frisch led the charge for the Cougars, combining for 12 points, including a pair of 3-pointers by Frisch.
Cardinal Stritch brought the deficit back to single-digits with three straight baskets, however the run quickly came to an end when Brooke Ridley found the back of the net. The score would linger between six and 10 points the remainder of the half with a Jenny Shernell bucket for Cardinal Stritch making it 43-35 at the break.
Both teams shot better than 50 percent in the frame, including a 53.8 percent (14-for-26) success rate by the Wolves.
Michelle Piepenburg capped a 13-4 Cardinal Stritch run to open the second stanza with a turnaround jumper in the lane. The run tied the game at 48 with 13:06 left. Jennelle Wilson scored eight of Saint Francis’ next 13 points, as the Cougars amassed a 63-56 lead with a little under six minutes remaining in the half.
Cardinal Stritch lingered around through the remainder of the period, cutting the deficit to 66-64 with 33 seconds remaining. The Wolves best chance to tie the game came on Saint Francis’ next possession, as the Cougars overthrew in the inbounds pass into the arms of Piepenburg. A Saint Francis foul at the half-court stripe put Mika Passini at the free throw line with eight seconds left, however her first of the one-and-one rimed out and into the arms of Crossroads League Player of the Year Skylarr Shurn.
Shurn netted both free throws to seal the game and a chance to play for the national title for the Cougars.
Overall, Saint Francis shot 43.1 percent (22-for-51) from the field in the game, including a 8-for-16 effort from 3-point range. Bear was the individual scoring leader for the Cougars with 16 points, while Wilson and Frisch finished the contest with 15 points each, respectively.
Saint Francis won the battle at the free throw line, outscoring Cardinal Stritch, 16-4, at the charity stripe.
Cardinal Stritch, which was playing in its first-ever Fab Four, was led in scoring by Piepenburg’s 16 points. Other notable scorers for the Wolves included Beck Gilbreath with 15 points and Emily Neitzel with 12 points.
As a team, Cardinal Stritch shot 44.3 percent (27-for-61).
The Cougars advance to play the winner of No. 1 Davenport (Mich.) and No. 7 College of the Ozarks (Mo.) at 7:02 p.m. CDT on Monday. That contest will be broadcast live on ESPN3.