Lady Wildcat Coach Steve Brooks takes defense seriously.
On Tuesday night in Sioux City, Iowa that way of life on the basketball court led to the second-ever NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship in Indiana Wesleyan University history.
No. 4-ranked Indiana Wesleyan defeated another juggernaut offense in No. 6-ranked Davenport (Mich.) University 61-43 to win the program’s second national title in seven seasons.
“It’s such a great victory for our team and to see our team do something so special together that is what matters the most to me,” said senior forward Paige Smith. “The fact that this team came together, fought together and stayed together the entire year is the biggest blessing out of all of this.”
“It means a lot for the school,” said junior guard Taylor Goshert. “All the support we got this week was incredible. You can’t say much more than that because it means so much to us. It means something big to the school to bring home something big like this.”
In five games in six days, Indiana Wesleyan limited opponents to 44.4 points per game. Three of the five opponents were ranked in the top-15 in NAIA in scoring offense per game during the regular season, including a pair of schools that averaged 80 or more points.
The Indiana Wesleyan defense was on full display in the second half which allowed IWU to turn a 23-21 deficit into an 18-point victory. Davenport was limited to half of their season average of 86.3 points per game and the 43 points ties a program low in the 12 year history of the program.
In the first half, the Panthers did not trail for the final 18 minutes. DU led by as many as seven with a 17-10 cushion. But Indiana Wesleyan tied the game at 21-21 on two Val Sohasky free throws with 2:10 left. On the next Panthers possession, Shaina Johnson scored the final points of the half to lead 23-21.
The start of the second half featured four ties and three lead changes in the first eight minutes of play. The key moment of the night came with 11:24 left in the game when Emma Stahl drilled a 3-point basket from the corner to put Indiana Wesleyan in front 37-36. IWU would not trail again as the Stahl 3-point basket ignited a 22-1 run over the next eight minutes.
Taylor Goshert scored on a layup with 3:26 remaining to end the 22-1 run that put IWU in charge at 56-37. Jessica Brown hit two free throws with less than two minutes remaining to give Indiana Wesleyan its largest lead of the game at 61-40 while Staci Stadler knocked down a 3-pointer for Davenport with 27 seconds left to give the Panthers its first field goal in over 11 minutes.
“I’m really thankful that we kept them from making a shot for that long,” said Brooks. “Our kids played so hard and hopefully our younger kids can pick up on what we did because that is the kind of effort it takes to get back out here.”
Indiana Wesleyan kept the ball the final 27 seconds until the horn sounded the end of the game. At that time a mass celebration erupted on the Indiana Wesleyan sideline as the team won its first national title since 2007.
“We didn’t want this season to end the way it ended at home,” Brooks said reflecting on the Crossroads League Tournament Championship loss. “I thought we did a really nice job of preparing before we got here and an excellent job of preparing once we got here.”
The senior class of Paige Smith and Claire Ray once again came through for the Wildcats on Tuesday. Smith finished with 14 points and six rebounds and shot 6-of-9 from the floor while Ray added 14 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. Ray also came up huge on the defensive end on Davenport’s leading scorer Karli Harris. Harris, who averages 15.1 points per game, was held to five points.
“I can’t say enough about Paige and Claire,” beamed Brooks. “Claire did an amazing job on Karli Harris tonight. She just shut her down. Those two seniors have been our inspiration and leaders all year on the floor and off the floor. If you want to have a team like this you need seniors that step up and take responsibility and those two did that.”
For her efforts this past week, Smith was named the Tournament’s Most Valuable Player and All-Tournament First Team. She averaged 17.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.2 assists while shooting 55.1-percent from the field.
Joining Smith on the All-Tournament First Team was Taylor Goshert. The junior led all players in scoring in the championship game with 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting. She also had five rebounds, three assists, and two steals. For the tournament, Goshert averaged 13.0 points and 6.0 rebounds while providing plenty of intangibles.
“We may have won this thing last year if she was healthy,” Brooks stated about Goshert. “But I’m glad she is coming back next year because she will solidify us and give us stability with this group coming up. She’s a competitior from the time she steps into the gym until the time she leaves.”
Brooks was also honored in the postgame ceremony as the NAIA Phyllis Holmes Coach of the Year. Brooks also earned the honor in 2007. He led IWU to its second national title with a record of 35-3. The 35 wins is the second best in program history and the team won their fourth straight Crossroads League championship. Brooks’ defensive philosophy was the reason IWU was first in the country in defense at 47.8 points per game.
In attendance tonight to watch the national championship victory were Dennis and Marcie Whittaker, the parents of the late Leah Whittaker. Leah passed away in August of 2011 due to Stage IV liver and colon cancer. She touched the lives of many in her one year at Indiana Wesleyan, including her roommate Paige Smith.
“Every time we break the huddle we yell 30 because that was her number,” said an emotional Brooks. “She was an inspiration to us with the way she battled. All we had to do was figure out how to beat a defense. She was trying to figure out how to beat cancer. She was an amazing young lady who has had a profound impact on our team.”
Indiana Wesleyan is just the sixth team to have won multiple national championships in NAIA Division II. IWU is the only non-Great Plains Athletic Conference (GPAC) team to win the national title since 2000 and breaks a five-year championship run for the GPAC. Indiana Wesleyan improves its tournament record to 23-9 all-time, good for fifth best in tournament history.