Photo Courtesy: Aaron Packard
South Dakota 71, Florida Gulf Coast 65
VERMILLION, SD — Tia Hemiller tied her career-high in scoring with 22 points, and South Dakota protected its fourth-quarter lead through a couple of tense moments Saturday as the Coyotes claimed the 2016 Postseason WNIT Championship by beating Florida Gulf Coast, 71-65.
In front of 7,415 fans in the final women’s game at the DakotaDome (a record turnout for a women’s game at USD), the Coyotes (32-6) got a foothold by keeping the Eagles (33-6) scoreless for the first four minutes of the third quarter. Entering the final 10 minutes, South Dakota had a 45-38 lead, but had led by as much as 12 (41-29) when Caitlin Duffy hit a 3-pointer with 4:15 remaining in the third.
Eagles center Whitney Knight, who had a career-high nine blocked shots (one off the WNIT single-game record), hit a free throw with 8:24 left in the fourth quarter to cut the Eagles’ deficit to 45-43; she was whistled for her fourth foul 7 seconds later and had to come out of the game. Sensing the need for some offense, Hemiller converted a three-point play at 8:14, then hit three free throws after being fouled, which pushed the Coyotes up, 51-43 with 6:43 remaining.
Kaneisha Atwater nearly brought the Eagles all the way back, scoring eight straight points for her team and bringing the deficit back to two, 53-51, with 5:11 remaining. With the tension building, Kelly Stewart nailed a 3-pointer with 4:31 left to send South Dakota up, 56-51; a key offensive rebound by Abigail Fogg at 3:00 allowed the Coyotes to keep the ball away from Atwater, and Stewart hit another 3 at 2:11 to build the lead to 61-53.
Hemiller sank the dagger at 1:34, taking a pass from Nicole Seekamp and draining a 3 to make it 64-55. Stewart finished with 12 points for the Coyotes; Fogg had 10 points, nine bounds and three blocked shots, and Seekamp worked around a cold afternoon of shooting to chip in seven points, nine rebounds and eight assists. The Coyotes shot 39 percent from 3-point range and worked around their 14 turnovers.
“There’s a toughness and a grit about us, and we certainly played that way today,” said South Dakota coach Amy Williams. “I’m going to remember what a great team win that was. Abigail Fogg had to step in and step up, and Tia Hemiller played of her best games. Our team stayed committed to the team effort, and we were able to lean on a lot of different people.”
Atwater closed with 25 points for the Eagles; Taylor Gradinjan had 12 points, and Stephanie Haas added 11 points and six rebounds. Florida Gulf Coast shot 37 percent from the field and was out-rebounded, 48-31.
Defense dominated the mood in the first half, with South Dakota taking a 31-27 lead at the break. The Eagles shot just 31 percent from the field, but got a major lift from Haas, who scored 10 points in the first 20 minutes.
South Dakota shot a decent 45 percent in the first half as nine different players scored. The Coyotes were hampered by 10 turnovers, but were able to hold firm thanks to a 25-16 edge in rebounds. Stewart came through with a big 3-pointer with about 3:30 to go in the second quarter that broke a scoring drought of 2:30 for the home team.
Seekamp was named the MVP of the Postseason WNIT; the other players on the all-tourney team were Maite Cazorla of Oregon, Madison Ristovski of Michigan, Knight and Atwater from Florida Gulf Coast, and Hemiller from South Dakota.
WNIT Championship Game
Florida Gulf Coast at South Dakota
Saturday, April 2 | 3 p.m. ET / 2 p.m. CT
CBS Sports Network
Florida Gulf Coast (33-5, 14-0 Atlantic Sun) – The Eagles have set a program record for wins as a D-I team, and this is the third time coach Karl Smesko has guided a squad to a national title game. The last time was in 2007, when FGCU was a D-II program.
It took a resilient effort against Michigan in their March 31 semifinal, as the Eagles went on a late 10-0 run to secure their 71-62 victory in front of 4,633 fans at Alico Arena, the largest crowd ever for a women’s game there. The win stands as the team’s fourth over a power conference opponent this season (Arizona, Auburn and Wake Forest). FGCU finishes the home season with a record of 19-3 at Alico Arena.
“This is the most special because it’s now and the others were a long time ago,” Smesko said. “But I didn’t say anything to the players late. They were the ones who made passes and made the shots. We were getting out-rebounded all game but we were really tough there in the last three minutes. We also were fortunate because Michigan had some good looks but the shots rolled out.”
Opponents are scoring just 49.4 points per game against FGCU, with only vaunted UConn better than that mark in the nation. This will be the first road game for the Eagles since Feb. 27.
Kaneisha Atwater leads the team in scoring at 14.3 points per contest; two-time A-Sun player of the year Whitney Knight (who missed the team’s first eight games with a foot injury) comes in at 13.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
South Dakota (31-6, 15-1 Summit League) – The Coyotes have never wavered in their push toward the WNIT title game, even though missing out on the NCAA Tournament was a sobering moment. In perhaps their most complete game of the 2015-16 campaign, South Dakota took apart Oregon, 88-54, in their semifinal on March 30 in front of more than 5,000 fans at the DakotaDome. Backed by a
15-of-21 shooting effort from the three-point line, South Dakota broke the game open by outscoring the Ducks, 29-7, in the third quarter.
On a night of non-stop highlights, the crowd favorite was Tia Hemiller’s half-court heave at the end of the third quarter that went in the basket.
“These are people on our whole team who are getting in the gym every day and they’re putting in the work and they’re shooting with each other, they’re shooting on the gun,” said senior guard Kelly Stewart. “So when I see our teammates top to bottom making these 3-pointers, it’s just like they’ve been working on that, they deserve that, that’s their shot and it was just awesome to see everyone knocking those huge shots down… even Tia from half court.”
South Dakota is typically paced by senior guard Nicole Seekamp – she averages 16.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, has rung up 224 assists, leads the team in steals and shoots an impressive 87 percent from the free-throw line.
The season began with South Dakota losing its first three games, all on the road; the Coyotes have won 21 of their past 22 games and are 31-1 at home over the past two seasons. This game also marks the first time a Summit League program, men’s or women’s, has played for a national basketball title.
-Minnesota’s Rachel Banham scored 48 points on March 16 to lead the Gophers to an 87-80 win over Milwaukee in Round 1. That set a Postseason WNIT record for most points in a game, surpassing Tamika Whitmore of Memphis (45 against Arkansas State, 1999). Banham followed that with a 37-point effort in Round 2, a 101-89 loss to WNIT finalist South Dakota.
-Sharnae Lamar of Northern Iowa dished out 15 assists to set a single-game WNIT record in the team’s 64-58 victory over Drake, 64-58. The previous record of 13 was held by six players.
-It’s been an unusual tournament in 2016 as far as overtime games go – there’s been just one, when Western Kentucky beat Saint Louis on March 25, 78-76. There were five OT games in 2015 and 2012, four more in 2013, and two OT contest in 2014.
-Of the 20 teams that have played in the last 10 Postseason WNIT championship games, 16 went on to play in the postseason the following year, and eight of those teams reached at least Round 3 of that tourney.
-Nine of the last 10 WNIT champions played in the postseason the following year; three of the last four WNIT finalists (UCLA, West Virginia, Rutgers) went on to make the NCAA field.
-The 2016 title game between South Dakota and Florida Gulf Coast is the second time since 1998 that two mid-major programs have played for the Postseason crown. In 2004, Creighton beat UNLV for the title.
-Before 2016, there have been 13 mid-major teams to reach the Postseason WNIT championship game. The six mid-major champions are Creighton (2004), Missouri State (2005), Wyoming (2007), South Florida (2009), Toledo (2011) and Drexel (2013).
In their sixth WNIT, this is the first time the Eagles have made it past the second round...On the road, the Eagles are 12-0. This is FGCU’s first road game since Feb. 27...FGCU holds opponents to 49.4 ppg (only UCONN holds teams to less). Michigan was the 10th team to reach 60 points against the Eagles this season...Opponents shoot 24.5 percent from 3...A-Sun Player of the Year Whitney Knight averages 13.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 3.1 bpg. Knight missed...the first eight games of the year with a foot injury (FGCU is 28-2 with her on the court)...Kaneisha Atwater leads the team in scoring with 14.3 ppg.
SOUTH DAKOTA NOTES
USD is in its sixth consecutive postseason tournament...This is USD’s third WNIT appearance...The Coyotes are the first Summit League basketball program to play in a national title game...Summit Player of the Year Nicole Seekamp scored her 2,000th point at Minnesota...Tia Hemiller became the 4th current player on the roster with 1,000 points against WKU...USD is 31-1 at home over the last two seasons with a current 13-game home winning streak...Nicole Seekamp leads South Dakota in ppg (16.1), apg (6.4) and spg (2.5).