Westmont Women’s Basketball (27-4) trailed by eight points with less than five minutes to play in Saturday’s game, but the Warriors put together a 12-1 run in the final four and one-half minutes to earn a trip to Sioux City, Iowa and a berth in the Round of 16 in the NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship. The Warriors, who are the top-seeded team in the Liston Quadrant, defeated the eighth-seeded Drovers of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (23-10) by a score of 50-47.
“USAO was so physical, so tough and really good,” said Westmont head coach Kirsten Moore. “They had that game won and we just found a way. I am proud of the perseverance our team showed to stick with it, to keep believing and keep fighting, even when it felt like nothing was going our way. When it was hard to find a basket, they continued making plays both when we had to and down the stretch. They had clear enough minds and confidence to know that we could find a way to get it done.”
The Warriors fell behind 10-1 in the first quarter and did not record a field goal until Gabriella Stoll drained a three with 1:38 remaining in the opening frame to make the score 12-7. At the end of the first 10 minutes of play, the Drovers held a 14-9 advantage.
“At nationals last year, we started every game down,” recalled Sydney Brown. “So, it wasn’t unfamiliar territory for us. If anything, we are excited about being the underdogs. I think we thrive when our backs are against the wall and we fight.
“We were down the whole game, but one thing we had last year that we carried into this year is the sense of belief in each other. If I do my role, if the guards do their roles and if the posts do their roles, we will piece things together. We just have to keep believing, even if the scoreboard doesn’t say that.”
In the second quarter, the Warriors’ offense started to come alive. After a 3-point field goal by the Drovers’ Milagros Carrera made the score 17-9, Westmont put together a 7-0 run to pull to within one (17-16).
The Warriors finally caught the Drovers at 21 points each on a three from Laila Saenz, who returned to the team after sitting out last night’s game with an injury.
“It helped getting Laila back out there tonight and it will help to have her back heading out to Sioux City,” noted Moore.
With 1:24 to go before intermission, Stoll scored on a layup to give Westmont its first lead of the game (23-21).
Just over a minute later, however, Tori James connected from beyond the arc, sending Science and Arts into the break with a 24-23 advantage.
“At half time, we gathered ourselves together,” said Brown. “We know how to be tough. We run a conditioning test. Most teams don’t do that. We trust in each other’s conditioning level and that we were tougher and grittier. We are a second-half team.”
That resolve would be tested by the Drovers who not only kept the Warriors at bay in the third quarter, but gradually built some separation. With just 18 seconds remaining in the penultimate period, Lainey Morrow sank a three ball to extend USAO’s advantage to eight (39-31).
Berberabe responded, however, when she scored on a layup, was fouled and converted the resulting free throw to produce a score of 39-34 at the end of the third quarter.
Less than a minute into the final frame, James hit another three, restoring an eight-point margin to the Drovers (42-34). Over the next four minutes, the Warriors were unable to reduce their deficit to less than six points. With 4:41 to play in regulation, Carrera scored on a layup to record her 18th point of the game and give the Drovers a 46-38 lead.
What no one knew at the time, is that Carrera’s layup would be the last field goal scored by the Drovers.
On the Warriors’ subsequent possession, Iyree Jarrett drove the lane and scored on a layup for her first field goal of the game. That made the score 46-40. On Westmont’s next possession, Brown made a layup, pulling the Warriors to within four points (46-42) with 3:51 to play.
Neither team scored for more than two minutes before Berberabe drove the lane, then kicked the ball out to Saenz on the left side. Saenz drained a three to pull the Warriors within a single point (46-45) with 1:50 remaining.
The Drovers would add a point on a free throw on their next possession, making the score 47-45 with 1:24 left. On Westmont’s next trip up the court, Jarrett was being guarded beyond the arc. She passed the ball inside to Larson, who then sent the ball back to Jarrett. The senior guard received the bounce pass and drilled a 3-pointer to put Westmont on top 48-47, its first lead in nearly 20 minutes.
After a missed layup on the Drover’s end, Westmont brought the ball up the court. Once again, Jarrett passed the ball inside to Larson. This time, however, Larson redirected the ball to Saenz in the right corner. After Saenz’ shot bounced off the rim, Larson and Morrow both grabbed the rebound and wrestled each other to the floor, trying to gain possession. An official’s whistled sounded and a jump ball was declared. Alternating possession favored the Warriors who now had a one-point lead with 15 seconds remaining.
“Kaitlin’s o-board was huge and put us in control where they had to foul us,” said Moore.
Jarrett inbounded the ball to Berberabe from the baseline. Berberabe was able to dribble four seconds off the clock before being fouled. Unfortunately for the Drovers, it was only their fourth team foul of the quarter, so Westmont was again awarded the ball out of bounds.
Brown then inbounded the ball from the left sideline, again getting it to Berberabe but this time in the backcourt. Berberabe was able to dribble off another six second before being fouled. With 4.9 seconds showing on the clock, she stepped to the free throw line and converted both attempts, putting Westmont ahead 50-47.
“After a tough night of shooting, Stef knocked down both free throws to put us up by three,” praised Moore.
Darrick Matthews, the Drovers’ head coach, called time out to draw up a play and advance the ball to the front court. Kaytlen Johnson was tasked by Matthews to inbound the ball and she did so to Carrera who was positioned above the 3-point line on the right side.
Carrera, who had already made two from long distance, got the shot off, but Destiny Okonkwo denied the shot with her first block of the game. Carrera was able to recover the ball and put up an off-balanced 3-point attempt with one second left. As the ball bounced off the rim, however, time expired and the Warriors mobbed Okonkwo in celebration.
“Obviously, the key all night was defense,” stated Moore. “When you are struggling that much on the offensive end, you have to be able to hold them defensively. It actually was our goal to hold them under 50 points, which is a crazy goal to set when they average almost 76 points per game. However, it was something that we were determined to do. We relied on our defense all year and it came through tonight in a big way.”
Now the Warriors turn their attention to Iowa and the Round of 16 where they will match up with Central Methodist (29-5) of Missouri in the Tyson Events Center.
“It is familiar ground over there in Iowa,” said Brown. “We know that gym well. We like the gym.”
Central Methodist, the fourth seed in the Liston Quadrant, punched its ticket to Sioux City with a 118-62 thumping of 12th-seeded Taladaga (Ala.). The Warriors and Eagles have never previously met. Nor have the two teams had any common opponents this season. The Eagles are averaging 77.1 points per game while allowing their opponents an average of just 57.8.
The two teams will square off on Friday at 1:00 p.m. local time (11:00 a.m. PDT).
Ron Smith is the sports information director at Westmont College.