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.