Martin Luther took the lead early and never trailed, taking a 69-63 win over the University of Minnesota, Morris women's basketball team Saturday in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) Tournament championship game.
The Cougars got in a hole early and were forced to battle back. Once they were finally able to get the score tied - late in the second half - they were unable to capitalize. Jenni Noordmans got a steal the next time down the floor, but it led to no points as a missed shot turned into another turnover, and eventually a trip to the line to take back to the lead for the Knights.
After the Cougars tied it, the Knights ended the game on a 6-0 run, locking up a championship.
The Cougars trailed by eight at the break and by as much as 15 in the second half, before seizing momentum and erasing the deficit to tie the game 63-63. With 4:20 left, Allie Sannes was left alone at the top of the arc where she nailed a three pointer capping a furious comeback over a six-minute stretch late in the game.
The Cougars scored 11 straight, capped by Noordmans lay up, a block on the defensive end by Sannes, and a lay up by Emily Auch going the other way to pull the Cougars within one at 61-60.
They were never able to get the lead, though, and couldn't get to the free-throw line enough to slow the Knights. The Cougars finished just 4-of-5 at the line, while the Knights went a perfect 18-of-18 from the stripe. Morris held a slight edge over Martin Luther from the floor, 39 percent (26-of-66) to 35 percent (23-of-66), but the Knights 46-to-38 edge on the boards was a problem.
After a slow start, Emily Mehr finished with 21 to lead the Cougars, finishing as the only player in double figures.
The Knights were led by Erin Babinec who led all players in both scoring and rebounding with 22 and 14, respectively.
Mehr scored 12 of her points in the second half, leading the charge as the Cougars got back in the game, but finished just 9-of-22. Noordmans was next for the Cougars with nine.
A frantic first half that produced nearly 70 combined shots left the Cougars trailing as they went to the locker rooms, down eight at 37-29. They had the last shot and a chance to cut it to five, but Mehr's last-second attempt came up short.
The Cougars trailed the entire half, after the Knights opened the scoring and took off to a 6-0 lead before the Cougars got on the board. Kelsey Erickson hit a three three minutes in to cut the lead in half, but Martin Luther answered with back-to-back baskets to go up by seven at the 15:38 mark.
Shooting woes and missed opportunities plagued the Cougars early, and by the 10:36 mark the Knights were up by double digits at 27-17. By the end of the half, the Knights cooled off from the floor, finishing at 33 percent, with the Cougars at 36 percent, but the Knights 37-to-29 edge on the boards kept them in charge.
The loss all but ensures an end to the Cougars' season, leaving them one game shy of their third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. As the UMAC Tournament Champion, Martin Luther earns the Conference's automatic bid to the national tournament, with an at-large bid for the Cougars highly unlikely.
The Cougars finish with 18 wins for the third straight season, and despite missing out on their second straight UMAC Tournament title, they did earn three straight regular season championships