DUNBAR, WI – The women’s basketball team capped an improbable Midwest Region Tournament Cinderella run, by defeating #1 Grace Bible, 72-68, in come from behind fashion, to secure the 2014 NCCAA DII Midwest Region Championship on Saturday.
Maranatha entered the tournament as the #3 seed, but pulled off impressive wins against the top two seeds, including #2 Lincoln, after suffering losses to both squads, earlier in the season.
The Tigers blitzed Maranatha in the opening minutes, with leads of 8-0, and 11-2 on a three-pointer, but as would be the storyline of the game, Maranatha found a way to climb back into contention, on a Courtney Dunn (Oshkosh, WI) pass to freshman Rachel Wells (Danville, IL), that cut the lead to 13-9.
Grace’s storyline through the first half, and early into the second, was their ability to pull away each time the Crusaders pulled close, and after Wells’ bucket underneath, answered with a three, and a 5-2 run, and an 18-11 lead.
Senior center Laci Peterson (Chillicothe, IL) put Maranatha behind just 21-20, but once again the Tigers roared right back with eight-straight points, and a 29-20 lead. Despite the Tigers’ prowess, Maranatha relied on their free-throw shooting to keep within reach, trailing 38-29 at the half.
Senior forward Erin Steuerwald (Whitewater, WI) was a major reason why, putting up a double-double in the game, and her strong first-half performance set the stage for the resurgence of Peterson, and the Crusaders in the second period.
Grace opened the latter period with comfortable leads that seemed to indicate it’s control over the game, yet the pesky Crusaders could not be denied, with a subtle push that drew the team to within 44-39, on consecutive three’s by Peterson, forcing Grace to call a timeout.
The momentum shifted Maranatha’s way, and several minutes later, baskets by sophomore Stacy Reinke (Clintonville, WI), and Steuerwald, put the team on top for the first time, at 49-47. The team also caught a break when Grace’s Marissa Pelletier fouled out, with 9:38 left in the game.
Grace also struggled to hit shots at the free throw line when they did attack the basket, and Maranatha hung on to a small lead for the next seven to eight minutes, before the final rush ensued, in a back and forth battle.
Senior guard Allison Schulz (Chillicothe, IL) gave the team their largest lead of the game, 60-55 on a three, but the team would need to withstand another push by the Tigers, who charged back to within one, with under three minutes remaining.
Grace’s persistence was rewarded on a jumper that tied it at 68-68, but with the game on the line, it was Peterson that carried the team to victory, grabbing her own rebound, and finishing with a put-back for a two-point advantage.
Maranatha scored the final two points of the game on free-throws, and a last-second heave by the Tigers fell short, as Maranatha continued their dominance in the Midwest Region, with an eight-straight Region crown.
Peterson posted 27 points, 12 rebounds, and five blocks in 37 minutes, and Steuerwald had 15 points, 13 rebounds, four steals and three assists.
The Crusaders advance to the NCCAA DII National Tournament, held at Ozark Christian, in Joplin, MO, March 13-15.