The University of Wisconsin-Superior women’s basketball team is hoping to disrupt perfection Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Tournament.
The Yellowjacket women learned Monday that they will face undefeated St. Thomas (27-0) in the first round. St. Thomas claimed the MIAC championship Sunday with a 66-49 victory over Gustavus Adolphus.
UWS (23-4) earned the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference’s automatic bid for the tournament with a 72-46 victory over Minnesota Morris in the UMAC championship game Saturday at Mertz Mortorelli Gymnasium.
“I’m just ecstatic,” said UWS junior Hailey Kontny. “We worked hard from the postseason all the way through the season just for this moment, and it paid off.”
The Yellowjackets, who also earned the UMAC automatic bid last season, fell to UW-Oshkosh 63-53 in the opening round of the 2016 NCAA tournament.
To advance this year, they’ll need to topple the Tommies, who are making their sixth straight appearance in the tournament and are ranked No. 2 in the nation.
“I feel like we’re hungrier to win this year,” said junior Justine Larson. “Last year we went and lost a close game, so we really want to go and we really want to win this year.”
The Yellowjackets will put a 14-game winning streak on the line Friday when they travel to Schoenecker Arena in St. Paul.
The Tommies are averaging nearly 74 points per game this season, led by Kaitlin Langer (19.7 ppg) and Gabby Zehrer (11.6 ppg). As a team, St. Thomas is shooting 45.4 percent from the field this season and 77.5 percent from the free-throw line.
St. Thomas advanced to the third round of the NCAA Division III tournament last year and the fourth round the year before. The team’s best recent finish was third place in 2012.
The Yellowjackets’ return to the NCAA Division III tournament was fueled by another strong defensive performance in their 72-46 victory over Minnesota Morris Saturday.
“We’ve hung our hat on our defense all year, and that was 40 minutes of defense,” said Don Mulhern, UWS head coach.
The Yellowjackets limited Minnesota Morris to just one field goal in the opening quarter and four in the second to take a 30-17 halftime lead.
The Cougars turned the ball over on three of their first four possessions and ended the first quarter with more turnovers (10) than points (7).
UWS also held a significant first-quarter advantage in rebounds, topping Minnesota Morris 11-3 on the offensive glass.
Offensively, however, the Yellowjackets could not gain a foothold in the first quarter. They shot less than 13 percent from the field to lead 8-7 after the first 10 minutes of play.
“The first quarter we were getting good shots,” Mulhern said. “A shot is not determined to be good if it goes in or not, a shot is a good shot based upon the circumstances and the situation.
“So if you’re getting good shots and they don’t fall, keep shooting the good shots. We kept doing what we were doing, but (in the second quarter) those same looks started falling.”
Morris opened the second quarter with a shot in the paint by Abby Van Kempen and another by Kendra Raths to take an 11-8 lead with 9:07 to play. Kontny followed with two quick baskets to put the Yellowjackets back in front, and UWS went on to score 16 of the next 18 point to take a 28-13 lead before the Cougars closed to 30-17 at halftime.
In the second half, Larson and Kontny kept the Yellowjackets in front by scoring 15 and 10 points, respectively.
Larson, who was named MVP of the UMAC Tournament after the game, did most of her damage from the arc. She hit her first 3-pointer of the night with 1:28 left in the third quarter as the shot clock was about to expire. The junior then added two more 3-pointers in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter to give UWS a 57-37 lead.
“I actually don’t shoot threes a lot, so it was kind of crazy,” Larson said. “I was just feeling good tonight about shooting.”
Larson entered the game having made just four 3-pointers on the season. She matched that total in the second half on 4-of-6 shooting behind the arc.
“It needs to be said that Justine is one of our girls that’s in here after practice shooting those shots a bunch,” Mulhern said. “That isn’t a young lady that just happened to one day walk in here and shoot them. She’s earned that by her practice.”
For the night, Larson finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds for a double-double. Kontny had 20 points, while Bailee Bartunek had a team-high 14 rebounds to go along with six points.
Defensively, Megan Aho contributed four of the team’s 11 steals and one its two blocks.
UWS forced the Cougars into 23 turnovers for the game and held a 22-4 advantage on points off turnovers.
“Defense was a key part of this game, and it’s what got us through the whole season,” Kontny said. “A lot of people say, ‘Offense wins games and defense wins championships.’ I truly believe that defense wins our games, but our unity won this championship.”
Minn. Morris................... 7 10 20 9 — 46
UW-Superior................... 8 22 19 23 — 72
Minn. Morris — Bailey Miller 11, Abby Van Kempen 9, Kendra Raths 8, Elli Stevenson 7, Mauren Thiesen 4, Jordan Halvorson 4, Tori Holt 3.
3-point goals — Miller.
UW-Superior — Justine Larson 22, Hailey Kontny 20, Bailee Bartunek 6, Hannah Norlin 6, Amelia Leger 5, Eva Reinertsen 4, Emily Carpenter 3, Brittany Laehn 2, Megan Aho 2, Mackenzie Kmecik 2.
3-point goals — Larson 4, Carpenter, Leger, Reinertsen.