WBK: Westmont wins defensive battle to reach semifinals

FRANKFORT, Ky. — It’s all about winning and advancing when you get to the NAIA National Tournament.

The Westmont women’s basketball team came out on top in the lowest scoring game in tournament history on Saturday to earn a berth in the national semifinals. The Warriors defeated Westminster of Utah, 39-36.

The victory puts Westmont (28-4) in Monday’s semifinals against Freed-Hardman of Tennessee (34-1).

“I am so proud of the journey this team has been on from getting knocked down the way we did in December to responding and becoming the team we are today,” said coach Kirsten Moore. “It is a testament to all these ladies of their perseverance. I’m glad this special journey is going to keep going a little longer.”

Tugce Canitez hit two free throws in the waning seconds to give the Warriors a 3-point lead. Westminster brought the ball down the court and Nicole Yazzie tried to hit a 3-pointer but the Warriors denied her a decent shot and the clock expired on her desperation attempt.

Saturday’s game was all about defense.

“Westminster is such a great defensive team,” Moore said. “They are physical, strong, smart and incredibly well coached. Open shots were hard to come by. What I was proud of was the ‘stick-to-it-ness’ of our team and the relentless fight to compete defensively as well. They run a great motion offense and have a lot of scoring threats. To defend the way we today showed a lost of toughness on our players’ part.”

Coming into the tournament, the Griffins had allowed opponents an average of just 46.5 points per game. When these same two teams met in December, Westminster prevailed 62-29.

“The last time we played them, we were a very different team than we are today,” explained Moore. “To be honest, we have to thank Westminster for that. In December, they outplayed us in every aspect of the game. We had to take a hard look at who we were and what we were going to be about.

“We have changed a lot as a team since then,” continued the coach. “We realized we couldn’t only rely on Tugce. Since December, we have had other people step up and be great threats for us when teams take Tugce away. We know that championship teams defend and rebound. We were able to rely on that tonight, even when it was hard for us to get our offense going.”

The Warriors jumped out to a 4-0 lead on field goals by Larissa Hensley (2 points, 6 rebounds) and Kelsie Sampson (6 points, 5 rebounds) and held on to a slight lead until Westminster’s Kelsi Wells (16 points, 8 rebounds) connected on a three-pointer that gave the Griffins a 16-15 advantage with 5:03 remaining in the first half. After an empty possession by the Warriors, Wells scored again, making the score 18-15.

Canitez (10 points, 13 rebounds) cut the lead to two with a free throw before Esther Lee scored the last five points of the half. With just a minute and one-half remaining in the opening frame, Lee scored from beyond the arc. Then with just under a minute before the half, she faked the three, pulled up and connected for two more. As a result, Westmont took a 21-18 lead into the locker room.

Lee, who led the Warriors with 15 points, made six of ten from the floor including three of seven from three-point range.

“Esther was a perimeter threat for us,” said Moore. “For Esther to be able to make them pay for doubling and sagging in on Tugce was fantastic. Tugce was able to kick out and find Esther who knocked down the shots.”

The second half saw Westminster come out of the locker room with renewed intensity. Brooke Larsen (8 points, 2 rebounds) and Wells scored back-to-back buckets to give Westminster a 22-21 lead. Canitez responded with a field goal before the Griffins went on an 8-0 run that resulted in a 30-23 lead with 13:14 remaining on the clock

“When they went up seven, it was so frustrating because it was so hard to score,” acknowledged Moore. “I called a timeout and talked about how we needed to stay composed, don’t get frustrated, but be problem solvers. We solved the problems just enough times to come out with a win.

“We switched up to multiple different defenses, trying to create a little bit of transition off of our defense. The players were confident in the switches we were making and bought into whatever we were doing at the moment. We were able to continue to get stops and continue to make sure we rebounded and deny them second chances. We were also able to get a couple of good looks in transition.”

The Warriors whittled the lead down to three (32-29) at the eight-minute mark on a field goal by Sampson. With 6:46 to play, Wells scored again to make restore the margin to five points (34-29). It was the last field goal Westminster would score.

Twenty-two seconds later, Lee scored again to pull the Warriors to within three. With four and one-half minutes to play, Celina Gougis (4 points, 3 rebounds) received a pass from Lee and scored to make it a one-point game (34-33).

Over a minute later, Sampson scored assisted by Hensley, putting Westmont on top 35-34. Canitez then added a field goal with 1:47 left, giving Westmont a 37-34 lead.

Twenty-six seconds later, The Griffins closed to within one when Allie Eastman (4 points, 3 rebounds) sank two free throws. Both defenses prevailed for the next 70 seconds until Canitez was fouled. She stepped to the line and sank both attempts to make it a three-point game.

“We are excited to be where we are,” said Moore of the win and advancement to the semifinals. “Our players have fought through a lot of adversity this year and I am proud of the accomplishments we have made so far.”

Her players are not the only ones to have fought through adversity. In May of last year, Moore lost her husband, Alex, to complications of surgery for Crohn’s disease. Alex, an associate professor of Kinesiology at Westmont, was close to the team as both a supporter and a teacher. Six weeks after his death, Moore gave birth to their daughter, Alexis.

“We are not done yet,” said Moore. “I am excited to be playing another day with these ladies.”

In the semifinals, the Warriors will take on the top-seeded team in the tournament. Freed-Hardeman advanced to the semifinals with a 60-49 win over fellow GSAC member Vanguard (25-4).

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