Northwestern was playing just 40 miles from home and making its third trip to the Final Four in as many years.
The Lady Raiders' experience made them comfortable, it seemed.
Northwestern scored 10 of the game’s first 13 points and never looked back as it ran away from Shawnee State 85-66 in the national championship game of the NAIA Division II Tournament on Tuesday night at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.
The Lady Raiders became the ninth national champion from the Great Plains Athletic Conference in its 10-year existence, and lay claim to their second national title in three years.
Shawnee State’s last trip to the Final Four came before the GPAC was even in existence and ended with a 1999 national championship banner coming back to Portsmouth with the team.
After that run, the Bears were 5-8 in tournament play before winning four games to get into this year’s national title game.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been there and this team got us back to that point,” SSU head coach Robin Hagen-Smith said. “I’m really proud of them and the season that they’ve had. I don’t think many people expected us to get to this point.”
Northwestern shot 6-for-10 from beyond the arc in the first half, putting the Bears into a significant first-half hole for the first time in the tournament.
SSU trailed by as many as 20 before the half and the deficit grew to as many as 34 in the second half.
“I felt like we were prepared, but they just took it to us,” Hagen-Smith said. “We didn’t have an answer for any of them. The things that have been good to us all year – our match-up (zone), we had trouble with it.”
Becca Hurley, a first-team All-American and tournament MVP scored 18 points in the first half en route to a game-high 23. She was one of five Lady Raiders to score in double figures.
“They dominated in every facet of the game,” Hagen-Smith said. “They got every rebound. They hit shots. We missed shots. We just really looked over-matched. They were clearly the better team.”
SSU was led by senior guard and first-team All-American Mallory Albers, who scored 16 points and pulled down eight rebounds and picked up four steals – all team highs – in her last game as a Bear. Fellow seniors Alison Meyer and Whitney Williams scored 10 and nine points respectively.
Abby Ballman dished out six assists while Jill Cropper added 14 points, including a pair of first-half 3’s to keep SSU in the contest.
Once the Lady Raiders opened a 10-point edge, Cropper made her 3-pointers in a 1:30 stretch where the Bears went on an 8-2 run to cut the deficit to 20-16. Northwestern countered with an 8-0 run and carried that momentum through the half as it took a 19-point lead into the locker room.
That lead was more than enough for the nation’s third-highest scoring team, which broke the single-tournament record for points scored. The 85 point total against SSU was Northwestern’s low in this week’s event.
While Northwestern is located 40 miles North of Sioux City, and surely will play in the Tyson Events Center once again next year, this contest was the last for SSU, which will leave Division II and join Division I next year.
The run for her third-seeded Bears all the way to the championship game will be one of Hagen-Smith’s fondest memories of Sioux City and the national tourney.
“This is definitely going to be up there with them all,” Hagen-Smith said. “Somebody wrote that 10 years from now, it’s not going to matter who scores the points or if your name’s in the paper. What they will remember was being a part of a team that helped make them successful.”
The Bears will return home Thursday around noon for a “Welcome Home Celebration” in the University Center on SSU’s campus. The athletic department is encouraging people to put up signs on US 23 south of Waverly to show support for the Bears and welcome them home.
CHRIS DUNHAM can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org