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Marian (Ind.) wins second-straight NAIA National Championship

Knights Joanna Soeiro (11) and Dejah Cyrus (14) celebrates their win against Saint Xavier Cougars. PHOTO BY LEO BARRIENTOS

There was certainly something special in the air Tuesday night in the Tyson Events Center. For the second straight year, Marian (Ind.) University captured the NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship title over St. Xavier (Ill.), 66-52.

The Knights continued their tournament trend of starting off slow offensively, which put them behind the Cougars through the entire first half, but the second half would tell a different story. The momentum swing for the Knights started with 4:43 left in the third quarter, which turned into a 14-0 run lasting the remainder of the period. Throughout the third quarter, Marian (Ind.) outscored St. Xavier (Ill.) 24-6, 13 of which were courtesy of Jessica Almeida, who amassed just three points in all of the first half. The veteran scorer knew she would eventually find her way to the basket.

“I just knew I had to come out way more aggressive because it wasn’t working for us in the first half,” Almeida said. “To be honest, we kind of in a panic, so I knew it had to be me as a senior to change our energy. . . As we focus on defense, our offense just comes and that’s exactly what we did.”

For St. Xaiver (Ill.), they were nearly 24 hours removed from shooting better than 50-percent from the floor and drilling 16 three-pointers in their semifinal win over Concordia (Neb.). Their success wasn’t quite the same Tuesday night.

“We didn’t play well offensively,” St. Xavier (Ill.) head coach Bob Hallberg said. “Most of the time if a team scores 66 (points) against us, we’re going to win the ball game. . . We just couldn’t overcome the way we shot the ball tonight. .  .I saw the same shots that we had last night, they just didn’t go in. We missed a couple layups, a couple two-footers, a couple short jumpers. For a good shooting team, we just didn’t shoot the ball well tonight.”

The championship final was uncharted territory for St. Xavier (Ill.). This was their 15th straight appearance at an NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship, 10 of which came at the Division I level before dropping down to Division II before the start of the 2012-13 season. In just their fifth year in Division II, St. Xavier (Ill.) went further than any other Cougar team had in those previous 14 appearances. The Cougars have plenty to be proud of as they finished the season with 34 wins and three losses, and junior guard Kara Krolicki took home NAIA Division II National Player of the Year.

“You can’t judge (the season) off of one game,” Krolicki said. “I had a great time playing this season. I loved playing with all these girls and this is the game that everybody wants, but this time it didn’t come out in our favor. . . We are hoping that we can come back here next year and get what we want. I couldn’t ask for more this season.”

The Kinghts’ lead grew to as many as 13 off of a three-pointer from junior Kellie Kirkhoff with just over six minutes left in the fourth. Then to the final margin of 14 when 2017 Tournament Most Valuable Player Joana Soeiro sunk a free throw to seal the victory for the Knights.

With 19 seconds left in the game, Knights’ head coach Katie Gearlds made a classy move and pulled all her players on the floor in order for the players on the bench to get in, so they could have a moment of their own in the title game. As for the head coach, she couldn’t find words to describe the way she felt as her team went “back-to-back.”

“I don’t really have words,” Gearlds said. “After we won last year, we were going to have a good team coming back. It was just a matter of how things were going to process. (Our players) just trusted us, trusted the system. You won’t find a better or a harder working twelve than those twelve that we have the opportunity to coach.”

Marian (Ind.) is the first team to win consecutive titles since Northwestern (Iowa) College did so going back-to-back-to-back from 2010-12. The Knights have the chance to do the same, too, although, they will lose three seniors. For now, they have accomplished one of the rarest and toughest feats in all of sports. The Marian (Ind.) University Knights are once again champions, this time with the title of “2017 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Champions.”

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