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ILLINOIS WESLEYAN 57, GEORGE FOX 48: Titans Bring Down Bruins to Claim NCAA Title
HOLLAND, Mich. - History doesn’t repeat itself?
For the second year in row, Illinois Wesleyan University stood in the way of George Fox University in the NCAA Division III National Tournament, and for the second year in a row, the Titans took down the Bruins - literally this time - to win the 2011-12 national championship 57-48 Saturday night here at Hope College’s DeVos Fieldhouse.
When the Bruins’ All-American 6-5 center Hannah Munger went down with the Bruins leading by four points seven minutes into the game with an injury and was unable to return, the end might have seemed inevitable, but the Bruins gave up the lead, got it back, then simply ran out of gas at the end - and into another All-American in Illinois Wesleyan’s Olivia Lett.
Pulling a page from the Titans’ own book of defense, the Bruins opened with a full-court press that held their opponents scoreless for almost six minutes to start the game.
“We knew the kind of game to expect from them,” said the Bruins’ Keisha Gordon, “a pressing, physical style, and we wanted to establish that we could also play that type of game and put the pressure on them.”
Meanwhile, the Bruins went on a 9-0 offensive run on a Hayley Cusick free throw, two layups by Megan Arnoldy, two free throws by Hannah Munger, and a drive by Breezy-Rinehart Young. The Titans finally got on the board with a rebound basket by Colleen McMahon with 14:16 left in the half, and pulled within four at 11-7 when Lexi Baltes canned a three-pointer at the 12:58 mark.
Moments later came the turning point. While going for a rebound, Lett fell on top of Munger’s leg, causing her to suffer a yet-to-be-fully-diagnosed knee injury that knocked her out of the game.
"Hannah takes a lot of abuse anyway, as big as she is,” said George Fox coach Michael Meek of his star post player who attended the post-game press conference in a wheelchair, “but this was a little more serious. She could walk a bit, but was definitely in pain every time she tried to run or jump. She’s got another year of basketball and a long life ahead of her, and the coaching staff and I didn’t want to risk further injury.”
“I might have gone back out there,” admitted Munger, “but that would have been selfish of me; I knew I couldn’t get up and down the court, and that wouldn’t have been fair to my teammates. We’ve got a lot of good players and I was confident they would step up in my absence, and we nearly pulled it off anyway.”
Despite the loss of their game-changing center, the Bruins held onto the lead for a while and even extended it to 21-12 on a jumper by Jami Roos with eight minutes left - and then the Titans caught fire, Lett hitting back-to-back jumpers to ignite a 16-0 run to the virtual end of the period. Baltes added a three and two free throws and Michelle Bilek a basket and two freebies in the explosion. A free throw by Jordin Ketelson with 0.9 seconds left ended the Titan run and made the score 28-22 IWU at the half.
“Hannah not only gives us great play offensively and defensively, she means so much to us emotionally,” admitted Meek, “and we didn’t do a very good job adjusting to her absence in the first half. I was very proud of how we adjusted in the second and made it a game again.”
Arianna Mohsenian hit a three to open the second half for the Bruins, and they closed within one at 30-29 with 14:30 left in the game on a pair of charity tosses by Dacia Heckendorf. With no shot-blocking Munger to challenge her, Shelby Jackson hit a pair of layups to boost the Titan lead back to 34-29, and they built a seven-point lead at 41-34 on two more Lett free throws with 9:19 to play.
Tightening up on defense, the Bruins stopped the Titans for four-and-a-half minutes while erupting for 13 unanswered points. Gordon dominated the streak with nine points as she nailed two free throws, a jumper, a putback, and a three-point play, giving the Bruins a 47-41 lead with 5:05 to go.
“All of us knew we would have to step up our game to make up for Hannah’s absence,” said Gordon, “and I was just trying to do my part.”
The Bruins could not sustain the momentum, though, as Lett took over. She canned two spinning jumpers in the lane and a free throw around a free toss by Gordon, and Karen Solari tied it 48-48 with two free throws at the 2:20 mark. Melissa Gardner broke the tie with a three at 1:06, and Lett iced it by hitting six straight free throws to close out the scoring. Again mirroring history, the Titans ended the game with a 16-1 run, just as they had closed last year’s meeting with the Bruins on a 10-1 run that brought them a 61-60 win in an ‘Elite 8’ game.
Gordon finished with 17 points, the only Bruin in double figures, and had a team-high eight rebounds and four steals. Rinehart-Young and Heckendorf had three assists apiece.
Lett had a game-high 22 for the Titans, again the only playeroin her team in double figures. Brittany Hasselbring had eight rebounds, Solari handed out three assists, and McMahon and Baltes each had two steals.
Defense was clearly the story of the game, the 105 combined points the second-lowest total in a D-III championship game. George Fox shot .321 (17-53) from the field, including .063 (1-16) from three-point range, while Illinois Wesleyan struggled to a .320 (16-50) shooting mark, .333 (5-15) from downtown.
“Injuries are a part of the game; this one just happened to be in the championship game,” summarized Meek. “I thank God for the opportunity we had to play here, and could not be prouder of the way we played and the way we responded to some adversity. Win or lose, all the glory goes to God.”
Illinois Wesleyan won 25 of its last 26 games and finished 28-5. George Fox ended with a 32-1 record, tying for the most wins in school history with the 32-0 title team in 2008-09.
ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM: Gordon and Munger, who had an arena-record 36 points and 13 rebounds in the Bruins’ 76-69 win over No. 1 Amherst College on Friday, were named to the All-Final Four Team. Also selected were Caroline Stedman of Amherst and Maggie Weiers of the University of St. Thomas, with Lett being named the Most Valuable Player.
NOTES: It was the final game for Bruin seniors Gordon, Mohsenian, Rinehart-Young, Carrie Myers, and Carly Towne. All but Towne were freshman on the Bruins’ championship team of 2009 which defeated Washington University-St. Louis 60-53 to win it all on the same floor ... The seniors who played four years for the Bruins compiled a record of 117-10 during their careers ... Gordon finished as the Bruins’ all-time leader in points (1,753) and steals (297) ... Mohsenian is the Bruins’ all-time leader in games played (127) ... Munger had two blocked shots in her five minutes on the floor, setting a new Bruins’ single-season record (124) ... Gordon’s nine steals in the Final Four gave her a new single-season record for steals (90) ... The Bruins are scheduled to arrive back at Portland International Airport at 1:30 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday on Southwest flight No. 202 from Chicago ... A ‘welcome-home’ parade through downtown Newberg, escorted by local police and fire officials, is scheduled to begin around 4:00 p.m.