UWS women win UMAC title, clinch first ever berth in NCAA tournament
The University of Wisconsin-Superior women’s basketball team clinched its first ever NCAA Division III tournament berth with a 58-34 win over the Northwestern Eagles in the UMCA tournament championship game Saturday night at Mertz Mortorelli Gym.
The Yellowjackets (23-3) will play at UW-Oshkosh (22-5) in an opening-round game at 7 p.m. Friday. The other game at Oshkosh is Wartburg (19-7) vs. Wisconsin Lutheran (20-7). The winners will play Saturday.
UWS’s NCAA berth comes one year UWS lost to Oshkosh 66-61 in the WIAC championship game.
“We kept saying all season that we can’t forget how it felt last year when we watched another team cut down the nets in our gym,” Kennedy said. “We knew what we had to do and the main thing was we just had to play our game. It’s really nice to know that we came out and did the job.
“There are no words to describe how this feels, especially since it’s never been done before. We’re just so happy to give coach the opportunity in the NCAA tournament. And being a senior, you can’t wish for anything more.”
UWS junior Sarah Lekson couldn’t have picked a better time to be playing some of her best basketball.
Just three days after scoring a career-high 14 points in a 66-51 semifinal win over Martin Luther, Lekson went one point better with a game-high 15 points Saturday, which led to her being named the UMAC Playoff Most Valuable Player.
“It was crunch time and I knew it was going to be a tough game,” Lekson said. “Before the game I told myself it wasn’t time to be nervous, it was time to work my butt off and that’s what we all did.”
Lekson also had three rebound and three assists.
“She’s got a great future in front of her,” UWS coach Don Mulhern said. “She’s been attacking, she’s playing confidently and she’s very coachable. You saw tonight what she can do.”
Once again the Yellowjackets spread the ball around with nine different player scoring points.
Justine Larson was the only other UWS player in double figures with 10 points to go along with five rebounds and five assists. Hailey Kontny added nine points and Allie Nelson had eight.
“It was the ultimate team win,” Lekson said. “Everyone was on the board and put everything on the line. I’m so grateful for all of my teammates, it’s just so awesome.”
Amy Berglund had nine points to lead the Eagles (21-6), who shot just 26.7 percent (12-45).
UWS couldn’t have asked for a better start to Saturday’s game as Nelson nailed a 3-pointer off the opening tip and Grace Kennedy scored seconds later for a 5-0 lead.
The lead eventually grew to 12-3 when Kontny scored after an offensive rebound.
The Yellowjackets also got off to a good start in their UMAC clinching 94-86 win over Northwestern just a week ago. UWS jumped out to a 10-2 lead, but 24 turnovers helped keep the Eagles in the game and the Yellowjackets eventually found themselves trailing 43-38 early in the third quarter.
That wasn’t the case this time around as the ’Jackets never took their foot off the pedal and eventually opened up a 42-20 lead at the half.
“We had a really good week of practice,” Mulhern said. “Our passing was a prime focus and I can’t be prouder of how much they improved from the last time we played them.
“The players did a tremendous job of applying what we went over in practice into the game. It was text book.
The scoring was down in the second half, including 10-7 in favor of UWS in the third quarter.
But the ‘Jackets were still able to open up a 26-point lead (48-22) when Kontny fed Bailee Bartunek for an easy basket.
Lekson then scored seconds into the fourth quarter to give UWS its largest lead of the game, 54-27.
Superior’s four seniors (Kennedy, Nelson, Hadley Skalmoski and Allyssa Lundberg) played a majority of the fourth quarter and when they exited the game at the same time they received a loud cheer from the crowd and a hug from coach Mulhern.
“My hats off to the four seniors,” Mulhern said. “All week they kept us focused and level headed.”
UWS freshman Natalia Iruegas scored the game’s final basket with 53.8 seconds remaining.
While UWS will play in its first NCAA tournament, Mulhern has advanced to several NCAA tournaments during his 28 years as a head coach, including MacMurray College in 1996 and Rockwood college in 2006. He also coached Lindenwood University to the HAAC post-season tournament in the early 2000s.
“It’s beyond pretty special,” Mulhern said. “This has been a long time coming. It’s been a progression over the years, getting better and better, people buying in and the people supporting us. It’s been a culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of people.
“This is the ultimate team – it’s unbelievable. Every player doing their thing, there’s no star, there’s just we.”
UWS all-time leading scorer Sally Linzmeier also made her presence felt Saturday night when she won the Domino’s pizza party at halftime.
Linzmeier, who finished playing at UWS last season, made a layup, free throw and then a half-court shot, which drew a huge roar from the largest crowd of the season.
“You couldn’t write a script better than that,” Mulhern said. “A player coming back from last year and doing that in the championship game. That’s unbelievable.”
’JACKET JOTTINGS: UWS never trailed Saturday night. … The Yellowjackets are 13-9 all-time against Northwestern, including 3-0 this season. … UWS set school records with 16 straight wins and wins in a season (23). … Kontny is the only Yellowjacket in double figures in scoring with 13.1 points a game.
UMAC Championship Game
Northwestern (21-6, 14-2)
Amy Berglund 4-9 1-2 9; Regan Cooper 3-4 2-4 8; Taryn Tumbleson 1-5 3-6 6; Jessica Cole 2-6 0-0 5; Rachel Hart 0-3 2-4 2; Andrea Zimpel 1-1 0-0 2; Courtney Cunard 1-6 0-0 2; Emily Van Lith 0-3 0-2 0; Kim Campbell 0-6 0-0 0; Tiffany Stubbs 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 12-45 8-18 34.
UW-Superior (24-3, 16-0)
Sarah Lekson 7-9 1-1 15; Justine Larson 5-9 0-0 10; Hailey Kontny 4-11 1-9; Allie Nelson 3-7 0-0 8; Bailee Bartunek 3-5 0-0 6; Grace Kennedy 1-3 1-2 3; Allyssa Lindberg 1-5 0-0 3; Natalia Iruegas 1-1 0-0 2; Hannah Norlin 1-1 0-0 2; Meghan Brun 0-1 0-0 0; Brittany Laehn 0-3 0-0 0; Shaelyn Halverson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 26-56 3-7 58.
Northwestern.......................... 10 10 7 7 — 34
UW-Superior........................... 21 21 10 6 — 58
3-point goals—NW 2-14 (Cole 1-3; Tumbleson 1-1; Cunard 0-3; Campbell 0-4; Stubbs 0-2; Berglund 0-1), UWS 3-18 (Nelson 2-6; Lindberg 1-4; Kontny 0-3; Laehn 0-2; Halverson 0-1; Larson 0-1; Lekson 0-1). Fouled out—None. Rebounds—NW 31 (Cooper 6), UWS 39 (Bartunek 7). Assists—NW 9 (Cunard 3), UWS 19 (Larson 5). Total fouls—NW 7, UWS 19. Technical fouls—None.