At this time a season ago in 2016, Marian University (Ind.) was en route to winning its first national championship in women’s basketball history; however, in 2014, it was a different story for the Knights, as they lost in the first round of the NAIA Division II Women’s National Basketball Championship as a No. 2 seed to seventh seeded Tabor (Kan.), 53–50.
This year, Marian enters the semifinal round yet again and will face a team that shares a similar story to that of their own. In just their second NAIA Division II National Championship appearance, the St. Francis (Ill.) Fighting Saints enter tonight’s semifinal contest as the No. 1 overall seed with only one blemish on their record; although, in 2016, the Saints met a fate likewise to the 2015 Knights, a first round exit to a seventh seeded team.
Marian used their early exit to propel them to a championship a season later, and now the Saints look poised to do the same, so long as they can make it past their predecessor in terms of turning an early exit into a championship run.
The 2017 NAIA Division II National Semifinal round will feature all four No. 1 seeds for the first time since 2011, but difficult first round opponents nearly kept both St. Francis and Marian out of the second round yet again.
The Saints needed two overtimes to get past a very talented UC Merced team. St. Francis squeaked by, 87–83 due to the heroic effort of senior guard, Charnelle Reed, who scored a game-high 34 points on 13-20 shooting. Freshman forward Kaitlin Aylward also helped the Saints avoid becoming the first No.1 seed to lose to a No. 8 seed by scoring 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
Marian also drew a tough first round opponent, the Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) Tigers, who averaged a national best 111 points per game in the regular season and play a unique style which features five new substitutes nearly every 30 seconds. Marian trailed at the end of the first quarter, 25–19, but would outscore the Tigers 86–67 over the remainder of the game en route to winning 105–92. Senior forward Ana Kirby posted 26 points and 9 rebounds to go along with double-figure scoring from five other Knights in the victory.
Both teams had a much easier time in their second round games, as St. Francis beat Tabor 69–53 while Marian dispatched IU East, 96–69. Aylward had a double-double with 18 points and 14 rebounds for St. Francis in their second round game, while Marian was led by senior guard, Jessica Almeida, who scored 19 points for the Knights against IU East.
St. Francis was challenged again in the quarterfinal round, this time by Eastern Oregon. The Saints were outscored 23-10 in the first quarter by EOU; however, St. Francis limited the Mountaineers to single-digit points in the following three quarters and won 51-48. Reed again was the high-scorer for St. Francis, scoring 18 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
Marian matched up with Southeastern (Fla.), the lone undefeated team left in the NAIA, in the quarterfinal round, winning 81-67. Trailing by three at halftime, the Knights relied on a big third quarter, outscoring the Fire, 27-10. Junior guard Joana Soeiro, paced Marian with 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Fellow junior, Kellie Kirkhoff, scored 21 points as well for the Knights.
St. Francis is looking to continue their longest postseason run in school history, while Marian hopes to repeat for their second national championship. Gametime is set for 6:04 p.m. central time and will air on ESPN3 and the NAIA Network.