UAA’s late rally not enough in National Championship
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA — Standing in the way of the UAA women’s basketball team’s first team national title was No.1 Lubbock Christian (35-0) from Texas, a school that is debuting at the NCAA Division II level this season. The saying “everything’s bigger in Texas” unfortunately rang true, as the Chaps’ size and length was too much for UAA to overcome, and the Seawolves fell 78-73 to LCU at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers.
“I am thankful it is not a best two out of three series, because that team (UAA) is really stinkin’ good,” said Lubbock Christian head coach Steve Gomez.
The Seawolves women’s basketball team had never made it to the national title game prior to this season, but it was not something that was out the question when discussing goals at the beginning of the year.
“This was the first year we talked about winning a National Championship from day one, we had never addressed that before,” said head coach Ryan McCarthy a week before the championship game.
The Seawolves played from behind for over 35 minutes, something they are not accustomed to. Megan Mullings did all she could in her last game donning “Alaska” across her jersey, totaling 23 points and 12 boards. Jessica Madison also played her final game as a Seawolf, tallying 14 points, including four trifectas.
“There’s a 10 day break, so I don’t think the first quarter is going to be very pretty, so I am trying to mentally prepare for that,” said McCarthy with laughs at the press conference held at the Alaska Airlines Center on March 29.
He couldn’t have been more correct. There was a serious case of the big-game jitters for both teams, as there was a combined nine turnovers in the first three and a half minutes, many of which were unforced.
“At the beginning it was hard to work the nerves out in this huge arena and with a lot of our fans here,” said Lubbock Christian guard Nicole Hampton.
UAA had a large support group as well. Hundreds of Seawolf fans from all over the country made the expedition to Indianapolis to root for the Green and Gold. Some family, some alumni, and some were just loyal, season ticket holding fans. The atmosphere, stage, and all of the eyes on the Lady ‘Wolves may have played a part in the sloppy play early on.
“Before the game, a lot of players were telling me they were nervous,” said McCarthy.
As the two best team’s in Div. II women’s basketball, naturally the game cleaned up and both squads settled down. LCU senior Kelsey Hoppel kickstarted things for her team, scoring eight of their first ten points. This helped the Chaps rattle off a 12-0 run during a stretch in which the Seawolves missed six shots. Jessica Madison cut off their scoring spree with a three-pointer to swing some momentum over to their side. Despite having eight turnovers in the first quarter, UAA chipped away at Lubbock’s lead and trailed 18-13 after ten minutes.
Uncharacteristically, only two Seawolves scored in the first quarter. Forward Megan Mullings had seven points while Madison contributed six. It was clear that the height of the Chaps, the nation’s leading shot blocking team, was altering the game plan. Standing at six feet and five inches tall, LCU’s Kellyn Schnedier is eighth in the nation in blocks per game. Her three swats in the first quarter intimidated the Seawolves, as they had just two points in the paint.
UAA found their rhythm in the second quarter, playing mistake free ball in the first four minutes. Five different Seawolves scored in a row to trim the deficit to just one point. However, the Chaps’ length in their 2-3 zone forced the Seawolves to cough the ball up several times, giving LCU opportunities in the fast break. Heading into the locker room at the break, Lubbock Christian held a 40-32 advantage.
LCU’s All-American guard Hampton was on triple-double watch, posting eight points, 11 rebounds, and five assists by halftime.
The Seawolves pride themselves on their up-tempo pace and their bench play, as an astonishing 11 players average double-digit minutes this season for UAA. Lubbock took advantage of the 10 day break to prepare for this game, and did a great job of countering the Seawolves’ strengths. The Seawolves had just four bench points and zero fast break points at the end of two quarters.
UAA senior Jenna Buchanan finally got on the board by knocking down a three to open the second half. Mullings’ layup suddenly made it just a one possession game, getting the Seawolf fans howling. Hoppel, who finished with 27 points, quickly answered back for the Lady Chaps, pouring in ten straight for the LCU, extending their lead 55-45. Lubbock Christian would hold that ten point lead to the end of the third quarter.
Madison, who drilled a three-pointer to start the final quarter, along with the rest of the Seawolves still had gas in the tank. UAA used their stifling full court press to power a late push during the dwindling minutes of the game. Down 14 points with under five minutes remaining, senior Keiahnna Engel sprayed a three to ignite a 12-2 run, a run that would help the Seawolves climb within four points with just 1:17 to go. A runner by Hampton and an Adriana Dent miss put the game out of reach, and the undefeated Lubbock Christian Chaparrals were crowned Div. II women’s national champions.
“There is literally no better way to end your career,” said Hampton. “I hope we built a foundation to start off Division II for Lubbock.”
Hampton flirted with a quadruple-double, piling 22 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, and seven steals.
“My teammates make me look better than I really am,” said Hampton with a big grin on her face.
As a team ranked No. 1 in the nation and possessing zero losses on the year, one would assume there would be a lot of pressure on the Lady Chaps. Steve Gomez, who just completed his 12th season as head coach at LCU, had a unique way of scaling down the importance of basketball to his players.
“Our first team meeting this year was at a cemetery by an open tomb. We wanted to start with the end in mind, and that this year is not going to define these kids,” said Gomez. “If winning a national championship is the defining moment in their life then it is going to be an empty, frustrating life. I think that helped relieve some of the pressure, not being consumed by the game.”
Although the Seawolves came up shy on their quest for the trophy, the environment of the of the tournament was dreamlike experience for UAA.
“I know for a fact we haven’t been treated like this, ever,” said McCarthy. “We are very excited to be here and play on this stage with the Div. I and Div. III teams here and just a celebration of women’s basketball on the biggest stage.”
It is apparent that there is love and appreciation between everyone involved with the University of Alaska Anchorage women’s basketball program.
“If we had to do it over again and I knew the outcome, I’d still roll with this group here,” said McCarthy. “I just love being around this group, they worked so hard and they sacrificed so much.”
“If you can convince a group of 14 girls to do their absolute best, every single day…amazing things happen. Really amazing things happen,” said Mullings following the loss.
Alysha Devine, a junior who will be returning to play for the Seawolves, will use this loss as motivation for next season.
“I don’t ever want to feel this way again, to be so close and to have to give that up, I think it will fuel our fire for next year.”
A record breaking season has come to an end. One downside of collegiate sports is that after a player’s senior year, they must move on and turn the page to another chapter in life.
“One thing I will really miss about these seven seniors is they might bend, but they never break,” said McCarthy.
Madison, Mullings, Hampton, and Hoppel took four of the five NCAA Div. II All-Tournament team spots, while Hampton was honored with Most Outstanding Player.
Congratulations to the Seawolves women’s basketball on a historic, unforgettable season. Good luck to Mullings, Madison, Buchanan, Dent, Engel, Dominique Brooks, and Christiana Davis on their next chapter.