Women fall to MNU in NAIA finals


Story by Jim Joyner, Sports Editor

The Baker women lost to MidAmerica Nazarene 49-35 in the NAIA National Championship game on Tuesday night in Independence, Missouri. The Wildcats finish their best season in program history at 28-9, and the seniors finish with 96 wins in their four years.

This marks the seventh straight loss to MNU for Baker and a fourth loss this season to the Pioneers. Baker led MNU at halftime in all four games this season, but couldn’t find enough scoring in the second half. On Tuesday night, the Wildcats led by double digits midway through the second quarter and led 25-21 at halftime, but MNU was dominant on offense and defense in the second half.

Before Tuesday night’s title game, the Baker coaching staff and team never referred to their opponent as MidAmerica Nazarene in an effort to not be rattled by the team that had beaten them six straight times. In the pregame walk through Baker never mentioned any MNU player by name.

This was Baker’s fifth game in six days, and the atmosphere was electric as the starting lineups were announced in Silverstein Eye Centers Arena. Baker won the opening tip, and senior Jami Hodge made an open 3-pointer late in the shot clock and the Baker fans erupted.

The jitters came back after Hodge’s basket and no team scored for another four minutes. Baker missed its next nine shots and MNU led 5-3 halfway through the first quarter. Baker finally scored its second basket with 2:41 to play in the opening quarter.

The Wildcats ended the first quarter on a 7-0 run and led MNU 12-7 through the first 10 minutes. Senior Taylor Chase made a jumper from the right elbow in Baker’s final possession. MNU’s best player, Megan Balcom, missed all five of her shots.

Sophomore Courtney Hoag took over from right where she left off against MNU in the Heart title game and scored the second quarter’s opening basket. Then Chase struck again, this time making her first 3-pointer of the season.

Baker then continued to strike from deep. Senior Ericka Simpson made her first 3-pointer at the 4:20 mark in the second quarter. Junior Kelsey Larson followed that with another trifecta, giving Baker a 25-14 lead as the Wildcats were 5-10 from beyond the arc at that point.

MNU’s Kyleesha Weston nailed a 3-pointer as the second quarter ended and cut Baker’s lead to 25-21 through the first 20 minutes.

MNU outrebounded Baker 25-15 in the first half, but the Wildcats held the lead because of their 46 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

The third quarter was a nightmare for the Wildcats. Baker shot 1-17 during a 10-minute stretch and did not score in the third quarter until the final 30 seconds on a basket from senior Macy Wallisch. MNU outscored Baker 14-2 in the third quarter and barely allowed for Baker to get off any shots.

The Wildcats’ energy had been zapped and nothing could go their way.

MNU’s Jasmine Webb made her first career 3-pointer to start the fourth quarter. The Pioneers controlled the tempo and were forcing Baker to make errors on both the offensive and defensive ends. MNU also waited for the shot clock to go below 10 seconds before shooting on almost every possession in the fourth quarter.

Larson cut the MNU lead to 43-33 with 1:40 to play with a basket in the lane, but she missed the and-one free throw. The Wildcats did not make a free throw in the game and missed all seven they took.

Scoring only two points in the third quarter and only 10 points in the second half ultimately cost the Wildcats a national title.

With 40.9 seconds to play Baker was forced to foul and MNU went to the stripe to take a 49-35 lead. The MNU fans went to their feet and began the “we own Baker” chant. The Pioneers held on for the final moments and the fans stormed the court as the Pioneers won their first women’s basketball title in program history.

Hodge and Simpson were named to the all-tournament team, and MNU’s Kyleesha Weston was the tournament MVP. Weston scored a game-high 21 points.

The Wildcats shot 15 percent from the field in the second half and 0-9 from 3-point range. Everything that worked for Baker in the first half did not translate to the final 20 minutes.

Larson and Wallisch finished with eight points, Hodge scored seven and Simpson scored five points. No Wildcat player scored in double figures.

The Wildcats’ incredible run came to a close in the final game of the NAIA’s season, but the team will go down in Baker history.

In 2011-2012 the women won six games in head coach Ben Lister’s first season. In 2015-2016 the Wildcats ended their season on the highest stage.