Briar Cliff at Morningside basketball

Morningside's Lauren Lehmkuhl puts up a shot against Briar Cliff during basketball action at Morningside College.

Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal

SIOUX CITY | Morningside College may be in an unfamiliar spot in the NAIA Division II Women’s National Championship, but don’t think for one minute the Mustangs aren’t a dangerous team.

For whatever reason, 11th-ranked Morningside (23-8) has been plagued by periods of inconsistency this season. As a result, the Mustangs finished tied for third in the Great Plains Athletic Conference and lost in the first round of the league tournament for the first time.

Morningside received the first at-large berth in the Field of 32, drawing a No. 3 seed, and will face Siena Heights (24-9) at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Tyson Events Center.

“Because of our inconsistencies we’re not as highly rated as we have been the past few years but I still think from our perspective we still expect a lot from ourselves,” Morningside Coach Jamie Sale said. “If we play well we think we can do well in the tournament.

“We have a lot of kids with experience in this situation. And, the only computer poll we have at our level, we played the No. 1 schedule strength in the nation. We’ve played a lot of very good teams that have prepared us for this tournament. We just have to find a way to be more consistent than we have through the year.”

Three of Morningside’s starters were starters on the 2015 squad that captured the school’s fourth national championship.

Senior Lexi Ackerman is a two-time first-team All-GPAC performer while Taylor Bahensky led the Mustangs in scoring in 2015 with a 12.5 average. Junior Madison Braun started every game as a freshman while classmate Lauren Lehmkuhl saw action as a reserve.

Braun leads this year’s team with a 15.9 scoring average while Ackerman averages 15.1 and Lehmkuhl 13.8. Bahensky (9.6 ppg.) recently moved back into the starting lineup after coming off the bench most of the season.

The Mustangs may have their fewest victories going into a national tournament since 2010 -- the last time they entered the tourney lower than than a two seed --  but they have a 37-11 all-time record, winning national titles in 2004, 2005, 2009 and 2015.

Morningside has won 13 consecutive opening-round games since an 80-69 loss to Cedarville in 2003 and has made seven Final Four appearances in the last 13 years.

The lapses this season have no doubt left Sale – the third winningest active coach in NAIA Division II – scratching his head.

“Sometimes with our team it hasn’t just been game-to-game, it’s been quarter-to-quarter,” Sale said. “We’ve been really great one quarter and really terrible the next. I think a lot of that is just focus and mentally staying in the game. Hopefully we’ve learned from that.

“Obviously when you get into the national tournament if you have one bad half you’re going to be done. Hopefully we can avoid that and we’ll shoot the ball well. We’ve been working hard on trying to improve our defense and maybe do a little more pressing than we’ve done previously.”

Morningside did win 15 of its last 17 games but was ousted from the GPAC tournament by Doane in the opening round. Doane didn’t make the national tournament field, but the GPAC is represented by five schools.

Siena Heights (Mich.) finished third in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference and lost to Davenport in the league tournament title game.

The Saints’ star player is April Watson, a 6-2 senior forward averaging 19.4 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. Watson played previously at NCAA Division II Ferris State and Division I Chicago State.

Siena Heights is limiting its opponents to an average of just 62.9 points and have outrebounded its foes by an average of 8.8 per game.

“They are very good defensively and have one of the best post players in the nation,” Sale said. “We’re really going to have to contain her. We’ve been a higher seed the last few years so we’ve had a little easier game in the first round but this one will be a little more of a challenge.”

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