SIOUX CITY, Iowa, - For the third time in program history, #2 Westmont Women's Basketball (14-1) has advanced to the NAIA National Championship Game. The Warriors earned a spot in the title game with a 74-65 victory over #11 Indiana Wesleyan (25-7) in tonight's semifinal action.
Westmont will take on top-seeded Thomas More out of Kentucky. The Saints, who are 29-1 on the season, advanced to tomorrow night's championship by virtue of a 65-62 win over Morningside (Iowa) in the first semifinal game.
"It required all the toughness we had physically as well as mentally," said Westmont head coach Kirsten Moore about the semifinal victory. "They are a very physical team and we knew they were going to try and be physical with our ball handlers. Defensively, they got up in us and made every look very difficult. We had to work so hard.
"We knew that the key to the game was whether we could get enough stops because they are so dangerous offensively. Every time they made a run, my team answered the call and hit a big shot or made a big play that we needed."
Stefanie Berberabe led the way in scoring for the Warriors with 26 points, making 10 of 15 attempts from the floor. She also provided four rebounds and three assists.
"Stef was phenomenal again today," touted Moore. "As dynamic and capable as she is offensively, her heart is even bigger. She is such a fierce competitor. I am so proud of her. Tonight, she stepped up when we needed her the most."
Kaitlin Larson recorded a double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds, helping the Warriors take control of the paint. That is, when she wasn't stepping outside the arc to knock down a pair of threes. Sydney Brown added eight points and seven rebounds to help shore up the inside game.
"Kaitlin was unbelievable all night with her toughness on the boards," expressed Moore, "and I think about that three she hit that answered a run they made."
Laurent Tsuneishi led the Warriors from distance, connecting on three shots from beyond the arc and totaling 11 points.
The game started with each team burning up the nets. The Warriors scored on their first six possessions while Indiana Wesleyan scored on their first five. Less than three minutes into the contest, however, Westmont went on a 10-0 run to go ahead 20-11.
Berberabe started the run with a pull-up jumper in the paint before Larson scored on a jumper then stepped out for the first of her 3-point field goals. Krissy Miyahara then knocked down a three to cap the run.
The scoring pace slowed down the in the second half of the first quarter, resulting in a 23-15 Warrior advantage after 10 minutes of play.
The Wildcats cut Westmont's lead to just four in the first two minutes of the second frame, but the Warriors responded with an 8-0 run to go up 34-22. Berberabe scored on two jumpers while Tsuneishi made two free throws and Brown scored in the paint. At the half, Westmont led the Wildcats 42-32.
In the third quarter, Westmont took its largest lead of the game (57-38) when, with 4:47 showing on the clock, Tsuneishi drained a triple. However, Indiana Wesleyan closed out the penultimate period with a 10-2 run to pull within 11 (59-48) headed into the final frame.
Less than 40 seconds into the fourth quarter, the Wildcats had closed to within six points (59-53) when Larson drained her second three of the night to return the Warrior cushion to nine.
The Wildcats continued to make runs at the Warriors and over the next seven minutes they pulled to within five on three separate occasions.
With just less than two minutes to play, Westmont was clinging to a slim 68-63 advantage.
"When the game got the tightest, Iyree Jarrett drove and they all collapsed on her," described Moore. "She kicked out to Lauren in the corner who hit that three."
Neither team would score from the floor again. Westmont turned up the pressure on the defensive end and continued scoring from the charity stripe to seal the victory.
"All year long, this has been a team that answers," asserted Moore. "They are ready and are not afraid to take the big shot. They are mentally tough as well physically tough. That is a very good basketball team that we just beat and I am very proud of that."
The Warriors have less than 24 hours to prepare for the championship battle with Thomas More.
"We are excited, but we have a lot of recovery to do because of how much toll that game that took on our bodies and how much effort it required of us," acknowledged Moore. "That being said, I'd take my team's toughness any day."
Thomas More won the Mid-South Conference Regular Season Championship with a 17-1 conference record. Its only loss coming to Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) in conference play. The Saints were also the Mid-South Conference Tournament champion, defeating Campbellsville 56-47.
The Saints are led in scoring by sophomore guard Zoie Barth who averages 13.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Barth was injured near the end of Thomas More's semifinal game and was carried off the court. Her prognosis for play in tomorrow night's final is unknown.
Also averaging double-digit scoring for the Saints are sophomore guard Courtney Hurst (11.5 points per game) and senior guard Briana McNutt (10.9 points per game).
Thomas More was an NCAA Division III school that upgraded to the NAIA beginning last year. In the 2018-19 season, Thomas More won the NCAA Division III National Championship. They qualified for last year's NAIA Championship after posting a record of 22-10 and were slated to play Vanguard in the first round before the tournament was canceled due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Thomas More is a really good basketball team that we have to get ready to play," said Moore. "I don't expect to sleep tonight, but I don't need to sleep - the players do. I'll have a game plan and we will see if we can go out and win a championship."
The game, which can be viewed on ESPN3, will begin at 7:05 local time, 5:05 p.m. PDT.
Article courtesy of Westmont Athletics