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Basketball NAIA Northwestern vs. Ozarks  (Best Action)

College of the Ozarks' Kelsie Cleeton, top, runs into Northwestern's Sammy Blum during the quarterfinals of the NAIA Division II Women's Basketball Championship action at Tyson Events Center in Sioux City on Saturday.

SIOUX CITY -- Darbi Gustafson capped a frantic Northwestern College comeback, hitting a game-winning shot at the buzzer against College of the Ozarks Saturday night.

Gustafson’s short jumper off an inbounds play under the basket gave Northwestern an improbable 71-70 victory after it trailed by 17 points late in the third quarter of the NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Championship quarterfinal.

The win sent the fourth-ranked Red Raiders into a semifinal game at 6:05 p.m. Monday against top-ranked and Great Plains Athletic Conference rival Concordia.

Meanwhile, heartbreak continued in this tournament for Ozarks, a five-time national runner-up that has reached the semifinals six times.

“I know everyone is going to think of that last play but anyone who knows basketball knows it doesn’t just boil down to one play,” Gustafson said. “It’s a continual grind and effort and I’m really proud of our team for coming back the way we did.”

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Basketball NAIA Northwestern vs. Ozarks
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Basketball NAIA Northwestern vs. Ozarks
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Basketball NAIA Northwestern vs. Ozarks
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Basketball NAIA Northwestern vs. Ozarks
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Basketball NAIA Northwestern vs. Ozarks (Best Reaction)

Before the final play, officials had to resort to the replay monitors several times in the final minute. That included the sequence just before Gustafson’s game-winner.

Aleksei Smith had given Ozarks a 70-69 lead, hitting two free throws with 10.8 seconds remaining.

Northwestern worked the ball to All-American Kassidy De Jong as the final seconds ticked away, but De Jong was unable to get off a shot and the ball was originally rewarded to Ozarks with one second remaining.

However, after review, it was determined that the ball went off an Ozarks player’s hands and the call was reversed.

Northwestern, then, got the ball under its own basket and Gustafson took a perfect inbounds pass and scored. That, too, of course was reviewed and upheld.

“I know I made the basket but all credit to my teammates,” Gustafson said. “It wasn’t easy. We had to stay together, play as a fist and just go out there and stick to what you know and play the basketball we’ve been playing all year.”

Basketball NAIA Northwestern vs. Ozarks (Best Reaction)

Northwestern players celebrate the win against College of the Ozarks during the quarterfinals NAIA DII Women's Basketball Championship action at Tyson Events Center in Sioux City on Saturday.

Ozarks got off to a fast start and parlayed that into a 39-29 halftime lead. The Bobcats took a commanding 54-37 advantage with 4:40 remaining in the third quarter and still led 61-49 when Cassidy Johnson hit the last of her team’s 10 3-point shots with 14.6 seconds left.

After an early bucket by Ozarks to start the fourth quarter, Northwestern scored the next 11 points to pull within two and took its first lead since the early going on a De Jong basket with 3:54 left in the game, 64-63.

It was back-and-forth the next couple of minutes. Ozarks had a go-ahead basket by Johnson with 1:16 remaining waved off after a review confirmed that the shot clock had expired.

De Jong, however, missed two free throws with 47 seconds left and Kelsie Cleeton drove to the hoop to put Ozarks in front, 68-67, with 41.2 ticks remaining.

De Jong knifed to the basket to score at the 20.7-second mark, putting Northwestern back in front. Then, after Cleeton missed a layup there was a scramble for the rebound and Northwestern was whistled for a foul, leading to the go-ahead free throws by Smith.

“There’s just a bunch of fight in them,” Northwestern coach Chris Yaw said. “Kassidy makes a big shot to put us ahead and Darbi makes a big one at the end. I’m sure there are 100 conversations about that going on.

“But there were so many of those in the fourth quarter that helped you creep back that people won’t remember but were just as valuable or you’re not in the position for Kass and Darbi to make those shots. Just a bunch of fighters that didn’t want to quit.”

Basketball NAIA Northwestern vs. Ozarks

Northwestern's Anna Kiel grabs a rebound against College of the Ozarks during the quarterfinals NAIA DII Women's Basketball Championship action at Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa on Saturday, March 9, 2019. Sioux City Journal Photo by Justin Wan

De Jong tossed in a game-high 26 points and Gustafson had 11 points and seven rebounds. Haley Birks contributed 10 points and freshman Taylor VanderVelde continued her strong play off the bench with 10 points.

Cleeton finished with 21 points for Ozarks, while Smith had 17 and Johnson 16. The Bobcats, facing a huge height disadvantage, resorted to long-range shooting, which is no surprise considering they led the nation in 3-pointers made this season.

Northwestern became the fourth No. 1 seed to reach the Fab Four, joining Concordia, defending champion Dakota Wesleyan and Southeastern (Fla.).

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