LEWISTON, Idaho - As the players cut down the nets following the win in the Frontier Conference Tournament championship game, Lewis-Clark State College women’s basketball coach Brian Orr smiled at the thought of playing someone new.
During the last three-plus months, the Warriors (25-6 overall) had played only one non-league foe while they got their fill of the six FC schools from Montana. With the conference’s new schedule, LCSC played all conference opponents three times, and with the addition of the conference tournament, the Warriors played two schools four times during that span.
In a nutshell, the Warriors were tired of the same old thing and were excited about the possibility of facing someone new at nationals. However, when the pairings were announced last Wednesday for the 38th annual NAIA Division I women’s basketball tournament, there was a momentary deja vu going through Orr’s mind.
The Warriors, ranked No. 13 in the final NAIA poll, will again open the tournament against Oklahoma City at 7:45 p.m. PST at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence, Mo. The two programs met in last year’s opening round and it marks the third time in the last 11 years the two have opened play. It will be their eighth meeting overall at the tournament.
“My reaction when I heard, honestly from a personal perspective, was isn’t there anybody else in the NAIA?” Orr said. “It just seems like we’ve played them a lot. But as soon as I thought about it for a second, I thought it was perfect. Last year our season came to a disappointing end, but this group remembers last season, no doubt about it.
Last year’s meeting still doesn’t sit well with the Warriors. LCSC trailed then No. 2-ranked Oklahoma City by 23 points, but rallied in the final 16 minutes to tie the game, only to lose on a pair of free throws with 0.3 seconds left.
“I walked into our locker room (during the first practice after this year’s pairings were announced) and the word I kept hearing was redemption,” Orr said. “I’m OK with that. Hey this group remembers that game, no doubt about it. The last 15 or 16 minutes were a lot of fun. We’d like to keep that momentum going.”
Yet despite the rematch, the memories may not be there for Oklahoma City. The Stars have an entire new coaching staff and return only one player who saw action in that game in Catherine Kruschke, who scored two points off the bench. This year Kruschke is a starter.
“Truly this team they have has no idea who LC State is,” Orr said. “They are 100 percent different. The coaching staff is different and their style of play is different. But they still have good players. And they have a great tradition.”
That tradition includes eight national championships, including the last two titles. OCU is making its 19th consecutive tournament appearance and needs only two victories to become the all-time wins leader at the event. OCU has 66 wins and trails Union (Tenn.), who is no longer in the NAIA, by one win.
The Stars (20-8) reached 20 wins for the eighth consecutive season with a talented lineup, but the team is short on depth. The squad has only nine healthy players but one has not seen action sinceFeb. 2.
Daniela Wallen, a 5-foot-11 junior post, is an inside-outside threat and is the Sooner Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year. She is fifth in the NAIA in scoring at 19.6 points per game and is ninth in rebounding at 9.1. She’s hitting 52 percent of her shots from the field and also is averaging 3.2 steals per game.
Kruschke also is having a strong season as the 6-foot senior is at 12.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per outing. The team has been helped by the return of 5-foot-7 guard Mariana Duran, who missed nearly the entire season, but is averaging 12 points per game in the four games she’s played.
“They have talent, but it seems like they’ve always had posts who are 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 and usually someone off the bench that’s 6-foot-2,” Orr said. “This is the first time we probably can say we have a size advantage over an Oklahoma City team.”
Although they aren’t deep, the Stars are similar to LCSC in that they like to push the ball at every opportunity.
“We want to do what we do well and some of our strengths are similar to their strengths,” Orr said. “Both teams like to get up and down the floor. Defensively, they play a ton of zone and it’s basically half court, but they fast break out of that zone and they are aggressive in it. But if they want to run, we want to run with them. Even though they like to run, they put a priority on their transition defense, just like we do.”
Unlike OCU, the Warriors do have depth. LCSC goes 11 players deep and the fresh legs have made a difference down the stretch in a number of games.
“That has been one of our strengths all year long,” Orr said. “Very few times have I looked down at the stat sheet and not seen that our bench has outscored our opponent’s bench."
The Warriors lead the NAIA in three categories: assist/turnover ratio (1.4); 3-point shooting (39.4 percent) and free-throw shooting (76.3 percent). The team is second in field goal percentage (46.2 percent), fifth in field goal percentage defense (34.4 percent), 10th in scoring offense (75.6 points per game) and 12th in scoring defense (57 points per game allowed)
OCU is shooting 43 percent on the season, and ranks 13th in the country in rebounding and 18th in steals. The team is averaging 67.1 points and giving up 63.
Orr says there are several keys to the game, including rebounding and transition defense, but when it comes down to it, a lot of it boils down to matchups.
“I like this matchup. I really do,” Orr says. “I like the fact we are playing Oklahoma City and I really hope that this is a statement game at the end of the day for us.
“Oklahoma City comes in with a reputation. No matter what, this is a program that is expected to win. We would like to think that our preparation from last year to this year, and with this team and the players we have back, that we are also prepared to win.”
This is LCSC’s 19th appearance at nationals and 13th under Orr. LCSC is 18-18 overall at the tournament.
For LCSC fans who want to watch the game, Zany’s in Lewiston will carry the game live on its TVs in the bar. Zany’s will do the same with the LCSC men’s game on Thursday at 6 p.m. PST.
The LCSC-OCU winner will play on Friday at 12:15 p.m. PST against the winner of the Tennessee matchup between Bethel and Cumberland, which also will be held on Wednesday night.