LEWISTON, Idaho – As she dribbled the basketball just past the half-court line late in the fourth quarter, Lewis-Clark State College junior guard Caelyn Orlandi (JR/Coeur d'Alene, Idaho) gave a quick big smile to her opponent before she scored on a drive to the basket. A short time later, it was all smiles for the Warriors.
After the Warriors made a key defensive adjustment and put the ball in the hands of their point guard, LCSC was able to erase a seven-point fourth quarter deficit and defeat the University of Great Falls 79-73 in the championship game of the Frontier Conference Tournament at the LCSC Activity Center on Tuesday night.
The Warriors, who outscored the Argos 21-8 in the final 6:04 of the contest, earned the conference's automatic berth to the national tournament with its eighth conference tourney title and first since 2012. The victory also marked the third time in program history the Warriors have won both the conference's regular-season and tournament titles in the same season. LCSC also accomplished the feat in 2008 and 2001.
"That's hard to do," LCSC Head Coach Brian Orr said about winning the two titles. "Honestly, there were so many expectations. When the (LC) men won the title, I felt more pressure. It's more of a relief right now than anything else."
LCSC also improved to 25-6, which ties for 10th on the all-time single-season list for wins.
The 38th annual NAIA Division I women's basketball tournament is scheduled for March 16-22 at Silverstein Eye Center Arena in Independence, Mo. Pairings for the 32-team tournament will be announced on Wednesday afternoon after the final NAIA Top 25 poll is released earlier in the day.
LCSC is one of four Frontier Conference teams expected to make the field. Montana State-Northern, ranked No. 16 in the current poll at 23-8, No. 20 Carroll at 22-8 and No. 21 Great Falls at 22-10, are all expected to receive at-large berths.
For a while in the fourth quarter, however, it appeared that Great Falls would be the team that hoisted the hardware after the game. The Argos trailed the entire way until late in the third and they took a 55-51 lead going into the final quarter.
UGF guard Erin Legel, who finished with a game-high 27 points, hurt the Warriors with her penetration. She used an on-ball screen that allowed her to drive to the basket and either score or kick the ball out to other shooters. The Argos were able to score on four consecutive possessions with that play and went up 65-58 with 6:04 left.
"I have to give my assistant coach (Aubree Callen) a lot of credit because were getting killed on that on-ball screen," Orr said. "Plan B this week was to switch (defensively) and I was hesitant to do it, but we did it and it paid off. I don't know if they scored after we started switching defensively. Thank God for assistant coaches."
With the Warriors posts switching who they were guarding on the screens, they were able to cut off Legel's driving lanes and stop the bleeding.
UGF, however, was unable to do the same with Orlandi, who finished with a team-high 16 points, but also got her teammates involved with 12 assists. She added five rebounds and a steal as well.
"She delivered and found the open player all night long," Orr said. "That was key. She had a great night."
Orlandi scored on consecutive drives to the basket, including the second drive when she gave a quick smile to the defender and then blew past her. Kaylea Knox (JR/Rainier, Ore.) also scored on a drive and Orlandi found fellow guard Brooke Litalien (JR/Post Falls, Idaho) open for a 3-pointer to complete a 9-0 run and put LCSC back in front at 67-65.
After Legel scored, Orlandi answered with a pair of free throws. Things, however, seemed to go back Great Falls' way when Morgan Grier scored on a drive to the basket and converted a free throw to put the Argos ahead 70-69 with 1:43 left.
Knox gave the Warriors some breathing room with a 3-pointer, and after a big steal by Brittany Tackett (SO/Coeur d'Alene, Idaho), Hannah Byerly (SR/Caldwell, Idaho) hit a baseline shot for a 74-70 LCSC advantage with 39 seconds left.
Legel again came through with a three-point play to cut the lead to 74-73 with 35 seconds remaining. Instead of letting LCSC run down the shot clock, the Argos decided to foul instead and put the Warriors at the line. The move backfired when Knox hit two free throws with 30.5 seconds and UGF missed a 3-point attempt. The Argos were then forced to foul and Tackett made 3-of-4 to close out the game.
"We did just enough offensively," Orr said. "At one point I wasn't sure we could get enough stops because we were really having a hard time stopping them, but we were able to pull out a big win."
Knox scored 10 of her 13 points in the fourth quarter while Natahnee Spencer (JR/Lapwai, Idaho) hit some big 3s early and finished with 11. The two helped LCSC's bench outscore UGF's 31-0 in the contest.
Byerly and Litalien each finished with 10 points, while Tackett had nine and a team-high eight rebounds.
Grier finished with 19 for UGF, while post Whitney George posted a double-double with 10 points and 12 boards.
For the night, LCSC was 30-of-62 from the field for 48.4 percent and 10-of-19 from the 3-point line for 52.6 percent. UGF was 26-of-61 (42.6 percent) and 9-of-22 from the arc (40.9 percent).
"I feel really proud and honored to be their coach," Orr said. "We never wavered. We played a really good team tonight and they played well. But we have a great group and really good team chemistry. They have had big goals as a team all year and we just reached another tonight."
This will be LCSC's 19th trip to the national tournament and the 13th time under Orr. LCSC has qualified for nationals in 11 of the past 12 seasons.