SIOUX CITY | In what has become an annual rite of passage this time of year, Morningside College won its opening-round game at the NAIA Division II Women's Basketball Championship.
Shaking off the rust after an uncharacteristic long layoff, the 11th-ranked Mustangs stopped Siena Heights (Mich.) 90-73 Thursday night at the Tyson Events Center, advancing to a second-round game against No. 7 College of the Ozarks Friday at 7 p.m.
Morningside (24-8) won its 14th consecutive first-round contest and hasn't lost an opener since 2003. The Mustangs were playing for the first time in two weeks after losing a first-round Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament game for the first time. It was also the first time Morningside hasn't drawn a No. 1 seed in the national tournament since 2010.
“I was worried after having two weeks off that we wouldn't play real well offensively, that our timing would be off,” Morningside Coach Jamie Sale said. “But we really tried to simulate game situations in practice and once we got going we shot the ball really well, had ball movement.
“And, the last two weeks we've also worked on our defense and I think that paid off. That's the best pressure-wise our defense has been in a while.”
Guards Madison Braun and Lexi Ackerman supplied most of the offense and seemed to feed off each other. Braun fired in seven 3-pointers and scored 29 points while Ackerman finished with 23 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals.
“We lost our first game in the GPAC and we hadn't done that before so it really hit us hard,” Braun said. “We knew we had to work 10 times harder. Nothing comes easy and we had two weeks of practice and went at it every single day. We really focused on defense because if our defense isn't good we probably aren't going to win.”
The Mustangs had to contend with Siena Heights center April Watson, a 6-1 senior who scored 19 points and grabbed 17 rebounds for her 22nd double-double of the season. Watson had 12 points in the first half and although she dominated on the boards, was neutralized most of the second half.
“Once we kind of got used to her a little bit I thought Sydney (Hupp) and Alex (Gill) did a great job on her, at least to contain her,” Sale said. “She is one of the best post players in the country so we knew she'd get hers but we wanted to make it hard and make her tired and take away the other stuff.”
Siena Heights (24-10) had three more players reach double figures, but shot just 34 percent from the field and committed 22 turnovers.
Sydney Hupp also reached double digits for Morningside with 10 points, while Lauren Lehmkuhl contributed six points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
An 8-0 run helped Morningside open up a 21-13 lead after a first quarter in which Watson scored 10 of her team's points. Braun had eight for Morningside, including a 3-pointer during the decisive spurt that snapped an 11-11 tie.
Hupp made the first basket of the second quarter to push Morningside's lead to double digits and the Mustangs began to pull away. Watson was scoreless and able to get off just one shot in the second quarter that ended with Braun making a 3-pointer from just inside the midcourt line, making it 40-23.
Siena Heights pulled within 44-34 on a basket by Watson at the 5:45 mark of the third quarter, but the Mustangs led 61-47 heading into the final eight minutes and increased it to 23 points a couple of times in the fourth quarter.
Oddly enough, despite all of the games both teams have played in the national tournament, Morningside and Ozarks have met only once previously. Ozarks won that game 92-74 in 2010, but when the squads met at Allee Gym on Dec. 3, Morningside rolled to an 83-63 victory.
“We beat them by 20 but I know she (Ozarks Coach Becky Vest) feels they didn't play very well and I thought we did play well,” Sale said. “They're not going to give us 20 points to start the game. It's a whole different game and they have a great program so it should be exciting.”
Ozarks defeated Reinhardt (Ga.) 81-62 in another first-round game Thursday.