The Baker Orange

No. 24 women fall to No. 9 MNU in Heart final

Story by Jim Joyner, Sports Editor

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The No. 24 Baker women lost 53-41 to the No. 9 MidAmerica Nazarene Pioneers in the Heart of America Athletic Conference tournament championship game Tuesday night in Olathe. The Pioneers won their second Heart title in three years and have now knocked off Baker six straight times.

The Pioneers led Baker 32-30 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but a 16-0 MNU run to start the final quarter doomed the Wildcats. The Wildcats’ 17 second-half points were not enough, even on a night that MNU only shot 32 percent from the field and 27 percent from three.

For the second time in three years, Baker and MNU squared off for the women’s conference tournament title. MNU won 79-72 in overtime in the 2013-14 final. Tuesday night’s final did not require overtime.

The Wildcat fans packed the stands behind Baker’s bench and outnumbered the Pioneer faithful in their own gym. The atmosphere was electric for the opening tip.

Both teams started slowly in the first quarter. MidAmerica’s first 3-pointer was made after a broken defensive assignment. MidAmerica started 4-21 from the field and Baker started 3-10. Turnovers troubled Baker again, with the Wildcats turning the ball over six times in the opening quarter.

Sophomore Courtney Hoag came off the bench for four quick points that gave Baker a 12-11 lead at the end of the first quarter. Sophomore Sydney Buchel was off to a hot start in her second game in a row, knocking down a shot in the lane and a trifecta.

With three-time Heart Defensive Player of the Year senior Macy Wallisch on the bench with two fouls, Hoag’s offense continued to shine in the second quarter. Hoag knocked down four shots early in the second quarter, forcing an MNU timeout and pushing Baker’s lead to 24-15.

But just like Saturday’s semifinal, MidAmerica is never out of a game. MNU trailed for nearly the entire game against Benedictine but finished the game on a 25-7 run to make it to the championship game. On Tuesday, MNU’s Nathalie Felipe and Megan Balcom nailed back-to-back 3-pointers, tightening Baker’s lead to 24-21 before the half.

Hoag led Baker with 12 points, Buchel had six and three others had two points at the intermission.

MNU took the lead right out of the locker room and held on to that lead into the fourth quarter. MNU showed its muscle in this quarter with Tristin Wicks and Whitney Moia blocking Baker shots in all directions. Baker trailed MNU 32-30 going into the fourth quarter.

The Pioneers opened the fourth quarter on a 16-0 run. The Wildcats couldn’t find the bottom of the basket and MNU made its first seven shots and two free throws. MNU’s Jasmine Webb came to life and pushed MNU’s lead to 46-30. Webb scored 12 points after the break.

Junior Kelsey Larson, the nation’s best 3-point shooter by percentage, had a shot roll all the way around the rim and back out, continuing Baker’s drought from beyond the arc. At the 3:36 mark it became clear that the game was out of reach.

Baker finally broke the run with a basket from Larson with 2:48 to play.

The final buzzer sounded and the Wildcats fell 53-41 and finish second in the conference tournament. MNU receives an automatic bid to the NAIA National Championships in Independence, Missouri, next week, and now the Wildcats await their fate in Wednesday’s selection show.

The Pioneers continue to dominate at home. MNU is 54-5 at home in the last four seasons.

Baker entered the game third in the NAIA in 3-point shooting percentage at 39 percent. The Wildcats finished the game 2-14 from beyond the arc.

Hoag led the Wildcats with 14 points, Larson scored 13, Buchel scored six and nobody else scored more than two points. Baker finished 29 percent from the field, 19 percent in the second half.

The Wildcats will be watching the NAIA selection show on Wednesday. Baker is trying for a third straight trip to the national tournament.

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