SIOUX CITY – It was physical, it was scratch-and-claw for every bucket, it was national tournament basketball.
The second half didn’t follow the script third-seeded Northwestern wanted, but when you are making your 16th appearance in the NAIA Division II Women’s National Championship that is to be expected. The Red Raiders held off a determined Friends (Kan.) squad in the second half to post an 81-74 victory and advance to the second round at the Tyson Events Center Thursday morning.
“You expect that it is going to be a dogfight from the tip to the very end,” Northwestern Coach Chris Yaw said. “It is going to happen in different ways there is no way you can script the way it will play out from start to finish.”
Northwestern scored the first six points of the second half to push its lead to 43-36 before Friends’ constant pressure and determination to get to the hoop made the rest of the game a grinder.
Friends’ Lexi Evans hit a 3-pointer with 1:40 to play in the third quarter to cut the lead to 48-40. The Red Raiders would keep it near eight points until the final eight minutes when the Falcons made their biggest push.
Friends' Makenzie Vining hit a pair of free throws to cut Northwestern's lead to 77-74 with 18 seconds to go but the Red Raiders, who were 29 of 38 at the stripe in the game, would get two makes from Kassidy De Jong and two more from Haley Birks in the final seconds to seal the victory.
The Falcons (24-9) did force 26 turnovers along with having six steals as they got 19 points apiece from both Yowana Posey and Vining. Betty Akathiotou had 13 points for Friends’ other double-digit scorer.
The physical play of the GPAC made the game all-too familiar for the Red Raiders.
“This definitely reminded me of a GPAC game just with the physicality with a lot of body checks, but we just continued to fight through it,” said Northwestern’s Renee Maneman.
Friends outscored Northwestern 32-28 in the fourth quarter.
Northwestern (23-8) was able to go up on Friends by going inside. After the teams battled to a 14-14 tie after the first quarter the Red Raiders went to the combination of Darbi Gustafson and Anna Kiel in the paint.
A pair of Gustafson hoops lead to a 20-16 Northwestern lead and when Kiel hit a pair of free throws the Red Raiders were on an 11-2 run. Akathiotou would get her team’s first hoop of the second quarter at the five-minute mark, but Kiel was just getting to work. After the free throws it was three straight baskets at the rim to go on her own mini 8-0 run and put Northwestern up 31-20.
“A lot of that was predicated on the penetration on where we were getting to make that pass,” Yaw said. “We didn’t handle the ball as well on the bounce (in the second half) when we weren’t getting those baskets. I don’t know if it is so much what they did around the basket to defend us as we just didn’t penetrate the ball in the right spots.”
Kiel finished with a game-high 20 points before fouling out late in the fourth quarter while Maneman finished with 12 points and eight assists.
“I think it is huge to get our posts involved and it just puts a lot of pressure on the defense to focus on them,” said Maneman, the NAIA leader in assists. “They have the opportunity to score the ball if they are in that position or they can kick it out to the guards.”
Northwestern also picked up the intensity on the defensive end as it started taking control of the defensive glass. The Red Raiders outrebounded Friends 25-16 in the opening half with De Jong setting the tone with 10. Northwestern finished the game with a 46-33 advantage on the boards as De Jong finished with 12 rebounds and 16 points.
“There were two areas on the stat line that showed great aggressiveness and that was rebounds and then we were getting to the free throw line,” Yaw said.
Northwestern will face second-seeded Eastern Oregon in the second round Friday at 3:30 p.m.