Talk about catching fire at the right time.
After taking down the 15th-ranked Royals of the University of Scranton 54-48 in Rochester, N.Y., last Friday, the Lions advance to their first NCAA Division III Final Four appearance in program history.
“It feels awesome,” senior center and captain Hillary Klimowicz said. “The road getting there has been unbelievable and we did it one game at a time. We’ve been gutting it out each and every game.”
The win is the College’s 13th in a row, as they have won 24 of their last 25 dating back to Dec. 9.
The victory also places the 25th-ranked Lions in their toughest game to date, as they will go up against the No. 2 team in the nation, the 30-0 Bruins of George Fox University. That contest will take place Friday at Hope College in Holland, Mich. at 6 p.m.
“We’ve lost a few close games and we know how to lose and they don’t, so we know we don’t want to feel that way,” Klimowicz said.
In their fourth game of their 12th NCAA Tournament appearance, the Lions went shot-for-shot with the Royals, as the game stayed close for the majority of the first half. They finished the half with a 29-23 edge.
As the second half commenced, the Royals came out firing, scoring seven unanswered points to take the lead 30-29, which made things close until the very end.
“Coach said in the huddle that they had the momentum, and we need to stop it,” junior point guard Karen Lassoni said. “They were pumped, but we just turned it around with our attitude.”
This tight game came down to the free throw line, as the College’s last 11 points came from the stripe, which gave them the lead for good. Five of those were made by Lassoni, who also grabbed a clutch rebound and steal to secure the victory.
“I was trying to do everything we could to win, and I was so focused on playing good defense to make the hustle plays,” Lassoni said. “I guess I got lucky.”
The Lions improved to 27-4 on the season, a school record. To date, the Lions have defeated four ranked opponents en route to their first Final Four appearance.
The victors were led overall by Klimowicz, as she posted a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Junior center Alexandra Gregorek and sophomore Kelsey Kutch were also in double figures, each recording 10 points on the evening.
The Lions got much more scoring from their big guns in the round of 16, as they routed the No. 9 and host Yellowjackets of the University of Rochester 70-58. That loss was the first the ‘jackets had ever incurred on their home floor in nine NCAA Tournament contests.
“That was a tough and very physical game,” Klimowicz said. “We won this game ugly. They outrebounded us, but we didn’t turn the ball over. It was a huge accomplishment.”
Things looked grim to start, as 24-4 Rochester took a 19-9 lead early. The College countered with a 12-2 run of their own to tie the game up at 21-21.
The visitors went into the locker room leading by 30-26, and increased it to a 16-point edge at 49-33 with less than 10 minutes left. However, the Yellowjackets would come back.
Despite their push, Rochester sealed its fate with less than a minute remaining as they missed three key free throws that would have cut the lead to three. The Lions made all four of their attempts in that same time frame.
Throughout the game, the Lions went to their bread-and-butter approach, as they let centers Klimowicz and Gregorek dominate inside. The Lions towering tandem combined for 33 points and 18 rebounds.
This type of offensive was sorely needed against the Jumbos of Tufts University in the regional final when the Lions toughed it out to squeak by with a 57-55 win on March 7.
After taking a 25-23 lead into halftime, the name of the game for the Lions was free throw efficiency. After a 14-2 run by the Jumbos eight minutes into the second half, the Lions pulled within one. Then, Klimowicz and rookie guard/forward Hannah Tait made the most of their opportunities from the charity stripe. With 3:20 left on the clock, six Tait free throws and four Klimowicz free throws gave the Lions the two-point victory
“I’m proud of Hannah stepping up huge,” Klimowicz said. “But as for me, I don’t really feel pressure anymore.”
In the initial round, the College took down 23rd- ranked Bulldogs of DeSales 64-51 on March 6. This was the first win over the Bulldogs in six tries by the Lions.
After the game was tied at 26-26 at the half, the Lions pulled away and went up by as much as 11, never looking back.
Overall, the College is 15-11 all-time in NCAA Tournament play, and looking to improve that record this weekend.
“I feel like we have started to mesh together at the right time, and being able to gut out these tough games,” Klimowicz said. “Everyone has started to contribute, and I think this game and this weekend we will hopefully peak and dominate.”