For the second straight season, the University of Minnesota, Morris women's basketball team finds itself in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) Tournament Championship, getting there after beating St. Scholastica 71-63 in the semifinals Wednesday.
With the win, the Cougars advance to take on Martin Luther in the championship game on Saturday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. in New Ulm.
Led by the first career double double from senior leader Jenni Noordmans, the Cougars held off a late rally from the Saints to punch their ticket back to the title game. She finished with a season-high tying 23 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Cougars in her final game on Jim Gremmels Court.
"Yeah it was do or die, definitely," Noordmans said after the game. "Coming out and playing strong. I think I shoot that much all the time, they just happened to go in tonight."
Noordmans went 8-of-19 from the floor, including 4-of-7 from three-point range to pace Morris.
Emily Mehr overcame an uncharacteristically slow start to finish with her typical 20 points, putting in 13 in the second half as the Cougars tightened their grip on the lead. Morris led 36-26 at the half, and saw their lead spread to as much as 19 in the second before the Saints began a comeback.
"We got the stops when it mattered," coach Tim Grove said. "We built it up to maybe 19, and it got to eight, six, and it wasn't a situation where I really lost faith. These guys know how to play a possession at a time, and there was a couple missed assignments in there, but when it came down to crunch time when we needed a bucket on offense, Emily got us one, Jenni got us one, we got stops on defense."
After the Cougars went up 54-35 with 13:55 left, the Saints began to chip away. St. Scholastica eventually got to within six at 69-63 with 2:55 left. Trailing by 14 at 69-55 at the 5:16 mark, the Saints scored eight straight in under three minutes put themselves back in the game
After Grove called a timeout to calm down his team, Kendra Wycoff came out with a huge steal and score to put her team up eight at 71-63, effectively sealing the win. From there the Cougars forced the Saints into three straight missed shots over the final two minutes and closed out the win.
Before building their lead, the Cougars played a back-and-forth game for much of the first half, leading by no more than four, while seeing the lead change twice and the score tied four times over the first 10 minutes. They took the lead for good at 8:03 when a Noordmans jumper put them up 18-16, and by the 4:03 mark her two free throws had them up 10 at 30-20.
Morris shot 39 percent (10-of-26) in the first half, while holding St. Scholastica to just 31 percent (9-of-28) including a 0-of-3 mark from three-point range. Then in the second the Cougars upped their shooting percentage to 44 percent (14-of-32) as they held off the Saints.
The Cougars pulled down 38 rebounds, with Abby Fragodt leading the way with a career-high tying 12 (including 10 on the defensive end).
The Cougars went 15-of-21 (71%) at the free-throw line, with Noordmans, Fragodt and Kelsey Erickson all finishing without a miss, including a team best 4-of-4 from Erickson.
With their 18th win, the Cougars have now won at least 18 games in each of the last three seasons, with a chance to make it three straight at 19 with a win this weekend. En route to splitting the regular season championship with Martin Luther, Morris also split the season series, with each team winning on the other's floor.
Most recently it was the Cougars taking a 70-62 win on Feb. 3, handing the Knights their first conference loss of the season in the process. The Knights scored a 69-60 win over Bethany Lutheran Wednesday to advance to Saturday's Championship game.
The Cougars will be looking to earn their third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, when the two teams tip-off at 7 p.m. on Saturday