Women's Basketball Comes Within Inches Of First NIAC Championship
After qualifying on Friday for their first NIAC Women's Basketball Championship FInal with a 69-53 semifinal victory over #2 ranked Trinity Lions, the battlin' Blazers rebounded twice from large deficits in Saturday's Women's Final and had their chance to claim the 2018 NIAC Banner in the final seconds of regulation before eventually succumbing to the #1 ranked SIsseton-Wahpeton Mustangs 88-86 in overtime.
Aimee Garland found her game for the Blazers right from the tip-off. The rookie point guard went after the Mustangs, knocking down a trio of three-pointers in the opening quarter to help CMU open a 27-25 lead. Garland would score 13 in the first half, going shot-for-shot with NIAC's scoring ace, Samantha Nunez who would later be named the 2018 NIAC Player of the Year after averaging an amazing 32.5 points per game in the regular season.
The combination of Nunez's scoring and a swarming Mustang's full-court press helped Sisseton-Wahpeton outscore CMU 18-9 in the final five minutes of the first half and left the Blazers trailing 49-41 after 20 minutes, mired in late second quarter turnovers.
When the teams returned to the court for the second half, the 8 point Mustangs lead quickly grew to 12 but the Blazers hadn't come this far to give in to their undefeated opponents. After an 0 for 2 first half, Jessica Marx-Houndle (pictured) took her team on her back in the third and fourth quarters to close the gap. The second-year guard shot 4 of 5 from the field and 7 for 8 from the foul line down the stretch to finish with a team-high 19 points and a game-changing 16 rebounds. The Blazers trailed the Mustangs by just one at the end of three quarters, 63-62.
Fans at Cankdeska Cikana Community College witnessed two teams determined to win a championship in the fourth quarter as CMU and SWC exchanged baskets, each catching momentary glipses of the lead and the title.
The final minutes would come down to free throws as both teams reached the foul limit. Caitlin Fennell held her nerves and went 1 for 2 to give CMU a 74-73 with one minute remaining. Nunez shot 1 for 2 seconds later to tie the game 74-74. In the final minute each team would score from the field to make it 76-76 and then with just three seconds remaining Kiara Rongavilla found herself at the foul line shooting two, with a chance to win the game. Sadly, this time it wouldn't happen. After both free-throw attempts bounced around the rim, the 2018 NIAC Women's Basketball Championship would end regulation tied 76-76 and the two teams would require five minutes of overtime to determine a winner.
Vanessa Millions overtime basket gave the Blazers the lead, 80-78 but that advantage only spurred the Mustangs to a 5-0 run. Then trailing by 3, Rongavilla would steal and dish to Shirliz Apiyo on the fast-break to cut the lead to one with 41 seconds left in overtime. Time continued to tick off the clock as the Blazers needed to reach the foul limit to put the leaders on the free throw line just to get themselves one final chance to tie or win the game. After Nunez went 1 for 2, Garland drove the ball up the court, set her feet and heaved up a thirty-five footer at the buzzer only to see it clatter off the rim and backboard: 88-86.
It was a disappointing end to a thrilling final and an amazing season for the young Blazers. The team captured their first MCAC Championship in eight years, advanced to their first NIAC Championship Final and came within three points of raising their first NIAC banner. Jessica Marx-Houndle and Julia Schatkowsky were selected to the 2018 NIAC All-Conference Team while Kiara Rongavilla received Honourable Mention on Saturday afternoon.