SIOUX CITY | Tears fill Kela Cihak’s eyes as she takes the court with 23 seconds remaining in Briar Cliff’s game Saturday night, an Elite 8 contest in the NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Championship at the Tyson Events Center.
Twenty-three seconds? That’s what remains in Briar Cliff’s season. The time ticking away in Cihak’s competitive career.
Cihak, a senior point guard from Avon, S.D., tears the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee three weeks ago in the final game of the regular season. The honorable mention all-conference performer plays defense as she plants and shifts. She feels the knee and her basketball dreams pop.
Cihak, a starter, delays surgery until the season ends, giving her hope to suit up for her Chargers in the national tournament. The knee improves until six days ago when it gives out in the closing minutes of a practice session.
She doesn’t dress for the Chargers’ opening-round win over Siena Heights University on Thursday. She dons a uniform the next night, Friday, but only watches and cheers her teammates during an upset victory over College of the Ozarks.
That leaves an Elite 8 contest versus favored Indiana Wesleyan, a tall order for Coach Mike Power’s young team.
“Coach Power told me Saturday that he didn’t hope it got to a point where we were losing at the end of the game,” Cihak says. “But if it did get to that point, he might put me on the court for just a couple of seconds.”
The scenario plays out as the clock ticks away, showing Indiana Wesleyan holding a 14-point advantage with 23 seconds left. Kirk Walker, Briar Cliff assistant coach, walks toward Cihak and asks her to enter the game. He says they’ll get her on the court for a couple of ceremonial seconds before taking a timeout to then remove her from the game.
“Coach Walker said they didn’t want me to do anything on the court and risk additional injury,” Cihak says.
That’s when Coach Steve Brooks of Indiana Wesleyan notices what’s transpiring. He calls a timeout and speaks with his players and Coach Power. The Wildcats, per Brooks’ suggestion, will allow Cihak the chance to score in her final collegiate basketball appearance.
“When Coach Walker came to put me in, it hit me,” Cihak recalls. “I said, ‘Shoot. This is it.’”
And she starts to cry while taking a position on the right block, four feet from the hoop.
Briar Cliff inbounds the ball. Jordan Sanger passes to Cihak who catches the ball and banks in her only shot of the tournament. May be the toughest – the most emotional -- of 1,004 points she scored as a Charger.
“I had to concentrate just to catch the ball,” she says. “I was a little nervous I might miss it.”
“Classy,” is the term Power uses for Brooks and his strategy to get Cihak a shot.
Following the make, Briar Cliff takes its final timeout and allows classmates Kelsey Evans and Cihak to leave the court one last time. The final 17 seconds tick away in a 69-57 Indiana Wesleyan triumph.
Saturday’s shot caps a Cihak career filled with memories made in this national tournament. As a player, Cihak’s Chargers reached two Final Fours, one Elite 8 and one Sweet 16.
As the 2013 Final Four commences at 6 o’clock this evening, Cihak will be there, torn ACL and all. She generally finds herself cheering for Great Plains Athletic Conference foes once Briar Cliff is sidelined. That means Northwestern College and Morningside College tonight, right? Not necessarily.
“I always root for the GPAC, but I’d also love to see Indiana Wesleyan do well,” she says. “What they did for me was pretty nice. Guess I’ll remain neutral.”