An Elite performance
Nebraska-Kearney was the charmed team, one that played above everyone's expectations through the first two rounds of the NCAA Division II North Central Region tournament. And Kearney was playing without their head coach, who, earlier in the day, ...
Nebraska-Kearney was the charmed team, one that played above everyone's expectations through the first two rounds of the NCAA Division II North Central Region tournament. And Kearney was playing without their head coach, who, earlier in the day, delivered a baby boy in Altru Hospital.
If Kearney didn't need any further inspiration, the Lopers knew they were one win away from playing the NCAA Division II Elite Eight tournament on their home floor.
Kearney's charm, however, was no match for two years of UND frustration.
The Sioux, in perhaps their best performance in six years, blitzed Kearney 108-75 on Monday night in the region title game, a win that sends UND back to the Elite Eight for the first time since the 2000-01 season.
The Sioux will meet undefeated Florida Gulf Coast next Wednesday in Kearney, Neb.
The win wiped out two tough years of postseason play for UND in the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center. The Sioux lost in last year's regional title game and fell in the semifinal round the year before.
But there was no denying UND against Kearney. The Sioux led throughout but couldn't put away a determined Kearney team until the final 10 minutes when their depth and athleticism finally wore out the Lopers.
"This is a great win," UND coach Gene Roebuck said. "We had two tough years. We hosted the tournament. . . We had expectations. . . We got beat on our home floor. . . There was a lot of pressure on our players to come back.
"But they put the last two years behind them. They came together and bonded and they played great basketball. Now, I think the monkey is off of their backs. They know they can play with any team in the country."
The way UND played in the second half, any Division II team would be hard-pressed to beat the Sioux.
Offense dominated the first half. UND led 46-40, but Kearney was step-for-step with the Sioux in a half that saw UND shoot 60 percent and Kearney 59 percent.
But UND exploded in the final 20 minutes, shooting 74 percent. The Sioux put the game away with a 7-0 run midway through the second half that took less than a minute. Kelsey Maffin, the tournament's most outstanding player, started the run with a 3-pointer. Karla Beck hit another 3-pointer 31 seconds later and Danye Guinn's free throw closed out the spurt.
That run gave UND a 76-57 advantage with 10:19 to play, and for the first time, the 2,346 Sioux fans sensed that Kearney's charm finally had ended. From there, UND cruised to its seventh Elite Eight appearance in program history.
"I'll be surprised if UND doesn't win the national title," said Kearney coach Carol Russell, who gave birth to her son, Isaac, about five hours before the game. "They have the size, the depth and the shooters to go all the way. Their depth really showed in the second half when we got fatigued and gave up a lot of transition baskets."
Ashley Langen led the Sioux with 21 points. Kierah Kimbrough added 17, while Maffin finished with 15. Danye Guinn, in another strong performance off the bench, finished with 14, while Beck added 13.
"It was one of the better games for all of us," Kimbrough said.
And the Sioux needed a good game to end Kearney's run through the tournament and to help erase the memories from UND's last two showings in the same tournament.
"It was tough," Maffin admitted. "It was always in the back of our minds. And now we were in the same situation. We didn't want to have a three-peat. We knew we had to play hard. Kearney is a good team. They made a lot of tough shots."
Kearney placed four players in double figures, led by Amy Mathis' 19 points. Liz Fischer, the team's lone senior, finished with 18.
"I was tired; I won't say I wasn't," Fischer said, referring to UND's depth advantage.
Russell arrived at the game early in the first half. She sat on the team bench, but the coaching duties were held by assistant Tim Connealy.
Russell arrived just in time to see UND end two season's worth of postseason frustration.
"They were clicking on all cylinders," she said.