SIOUX CITY, Iowa – The Concordia University women’s basketball team is headed back to the NAIA Division II national championship game. A rocky third quarter made for a white knuckler all the way down to the final horn. Ultimately, a Mackenzie Koepke steal just before the buzzer put the game on ice. The Bulldogs held off second-ranked Northwestern, 82-79, in Sioux City, Iowa, on Monday (March 11).
Once again 13th-year head coach Drew Olson’s program is on the doorstep of the ultimate goal. Concordia (34-3) finished as the national runner up in 2015 and again in 2018.
“We just have some really tough competitors on our team,” Olson said. “And they find ways to win. There were some different stretches in there where as a coaching staff you’re just wondering how are we going to get this done. They continue to make plays. I was really proud of their effort, their toughness. It came down to us being able to get some stops when we really needed it.”
The Bulldogs could have been too shell-shocked to persevere in a contest that was turned on its head. Concordia caused 15 turnovers during a first half that it mostly dominated. It led 35-15 in the second quarter. Northwestern (29-5) bounced back with some championship meddle of its own. Spurred by Kassidy De Jong (23 points), the Red Raiders roared back to claim its first lead of the game, 54-53, via a three-point play by Sammy Blum at the outset of the fourth quarter.
Northwestern held a 72-70 advantage as late as the 3:26 mark of the final period. De Jong simply got one-upped by GPAC Player of the Year Philly Lammers, who went wild for 28 points, 13 rebounds and five steals. On three occasions in the closing 10 minutes, Lammers battled for an offensive rebound and quick put back bucket. She also made 3-of-4 free throws during a harrowing last couple of minutes.
Up 81-74 after Grace Barry netted two free throws with 41 seconds remaining. The Bulldogs still hadn’t put the game away. Taylor VanderVelde followed with a trey and Concordia missed three of its last four free throws to leave the door open. The final few seconds were frantic. Taylor Cockerill missed the second of two free throws with the score at 82-79 with less than 10 seconds left. Olson elected to put Northwestern on the line, resulting in two misfires and a scramble for the board. It was finally time to exhale when the ball ended up in Koepke’s hands at the buzzer.
The aim is to focus and finish. So far so good for Barry and company.
“Since we’ve played them so many times it was just that finish part of our motto,” Barry said. “It’s focus and finish. We were up at the end of the game and it was like, ‘We have got to finish.’ That’s really what drove it home.”
There are stickers to go around after the latest pulse pounder. Barry carried the mail by playing all 40 minutes at the point. She poured in 19 points and dished out three assists. Senior Quinn Wragge played almost 39 minutes while totaling 13 points, two blocks and two steals. Cockerill also reached double figures with 10 points. Koepke continues to emerge as a budding star. She dropped in eight points, grabbed three steals and blocked a shot.
But on this day, Lammers was the most dominant force on the court. She avoided foul trouble this time while putting together the best performance of her career on the national stage.
“It was what it was,” Lammers said of the Northwestern surge in the second half. “The fact that we were able to overcome that just speaks to how tight-knit we are, how much we believe in ourselves and how much we believe in each other. I think that’s really what propelled us forward throughout this game.”
Four Red Raiders reached double figures in what was a rematch of a 2018 national semifinal clash. Blum put up 17 points while Haley Birks and VanderVelde added 10 apiece. Northwestern shot a blazing 60.6 percent in the second half and owned a 45-28 rebound edge in the game, but it wasn’t quite enough to overcome a minus-16 turnover disadvantage.
The 2019 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship Game will tip off at 7:05 p.m. CT from the Tyson Events Center on Tuesday. Concordia’s opponent will be No. 3 Southeastern University (Fla.), which outlasted No. 4 Dakota Wesleyan, 78-75, in double overtime late on Monday.
“We’re pretty excited to be back,” Olson said. “It’s something we’ve been on a mission for since last year. We have a group that’s very, very motivated. Our theme this year is to focus and finish and we have the opportunity to do that tomorrow night and we’re really excited about that.”
Listen to the game here.