SAN ANTONIO – Forty more minutes. That is the new mantra for the Ashland University women's basketball team.
The Eagles outlasted a fierce Bentley (Mass.) full-court press on their way to a 77-62 win over the Falcons on Wednesday (March 21) night at Bill Greehey Arena in the NCAA Division II Women's Basketball Tournament semifinal.
It was Ashland's 33rd straight win and the Eagles will play for the national championship on Friday (March 23) night against the winner of Wednesday's second semifinal between Shaw (N.C.) and Rollins (Fla.).
Junior forward Kari Daugherty (Fresno, Ohio/River View/Dayton) matched a career high with 31 points and finished with 22 rebounds, just one shy of the all-time NCAA Tournament single-game record. Senior guard Jena Stutzman (Berlin, Ohio/Hiland/Kent State) tallied 22 points, including four 3-pointers in the game.
The Eagles (33-1) scored 15 of the game's first 17 points and led 33-13 with 6:32 to play in the first half.
The Falcons (31-4) started to claw their way back into the game at that point, using a suffocating full-court press that seemed to throw the Eagles out of rhythm.
Bentley cut the lead to five, 35-30, with 35 seconds left in the first half, but Stutzman's deep 3-pointer on the Eagles' final possession pushed the halftime spread to eight, 38-30. Stutzman said she initially wanted to drive on the "four-low" play, but opted for the long ball.
"[My defender] backed off, so I thought, 'I'm going to let it fly,'" she said.
Bentley pushed the lead down to three, 40-37, just a couple minutes into the second half, again using a full-court press to force the Eagles into mistakes. (AU turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 15 times).
Ashland remained steady, though, never letting the lead slip under four points the rest of the way. The Falcons had the ball and had cut AU's lead down to six, 57-51, with 7:46 to play in the game, but the Eagles forced a miss and Daugherty plucked the rebound. The Eagles rattled off the next six points with Stutzman hitting a mid-range pull-up jumper, sophomore guard Alyssa Miller (Zanesville, Ohio/Tri-Valley) hitting a pair of free throws and sophomore forward Ashley Dorner (Bellville, Ohio/Clear Fork) knocking down a perfect 18-footer off a feed from Miller.
"We never really get shaken," Stutzman said. "We're always confident, always huddling. Everybody hit big shots today."
Dorner finished with 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting from the floor and added four rebounds. Miller scored eight points, pulled down six rebounds and dished out five assists. Daugherty had six assists to go with her other stellar numbers.
The Eagles sank six of their last seven free throws down the stretch to close the game.
One place the Eagles struggled in their win over Alaska-Anchorage on Tuesday (March 20) in the national quarterfinal was on the glass. The Seawolves collected 17 offensive boards in the game.
On Wednesday, Bentley had eight offensive rebounds in the first half, but turned those into just six points. The Eagles shored up the glass in the second half, allowing just three offensive boards and winning the rebounding battle overall, 44-33.
"This team wasn't quite as tall as Alaska-Anchorage, it was hard to go inside on them," Daugherty said of her ability to pull down rebounds and get good looks on her shots. "Tonight our guards got us the ball in the post in great positions to score."
The game featured a matchup of All-Americans between Daugherty and Bentley's sophomore forward Lauren Battista (17.0 points, 7.3 rebounds per game). Daugherty and the other post players, including Dorner and junior Beth Mantkowski (Fairlawn, Ohio/Copley), limited her to just 10 points and five boards.
"I've gone against some talented girls, and knowing I have a great defensive assignment really gets me excited for the game," said Daugherty.
The win ensures that Stutzman's final game will be with a national championship on the line.
"Jena has made such a major impact for us with not only her abilities on the court, but the leadership, consistency and faith she brings is unbelievable," said AU head coach Sue Ramsey.
With her four 3-pointers on Wednesday night, Stutzman now has 94 triples this season, just two shy of the all-time single-season record at AU. Karen Bley had 96 3-pointers in 1997-98.
This women's basketball team is the first in school history to play in a national championship game. Their 33 consecutive wins are the most in AU history, regardless of sport.
The NCAA Division II Women's Basketball Tournament National Championship Game will tip off at 8 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. Central). It will be shown live on CBS Sports Network and NCAA.com. Fans can also tune into Matt Brubaker on 1340 WNCO-AM or GoAshlandEagles.com.