Unfortunately for Cinderella, the clock struck midnight just a little too soon.
In vying for their first national title in program history, the underdog Lions were defeated by the Bruins of George Fox University 67-52 in the NCAA Division III Tournament semifinals at DeVos Field House at Hope College in Holland, Mich., Friday night.
The Bruins went on to win the national championship, defeating Washington University 60-53 in the final.
“The loss was hard, but we got beaten by a very talented team who eventually went on to win it all,” junior center Alexandra Gregorek said. “Does that make it sting less? A little, but a loss is a loss.”
The Lions did, however, take down the Lord Jeffs of Amherst College 82-74 the following day to win the consolation game and clinch third place in the tournament.
Both teams were making their first appearance in the NCAA Final Four.
“We were obviously upset about the loss,” senior center Hillary Klimowicz said, “but Coach relayed to us that only two teams in the country get to end their season on a win, and we had the opportunity to be one of them.”
The game was appropriately headlined by the play of the Lions’ tri-fecta of seniors, all playing in the final game of their careers.
Klimowicz led the trio, as she scored 25 points, grabbed 12 off the glass and dished out six assists. The Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association Division III Player of the Year finishes her stellar College career second on the all-time Lions’ scoring and rebounding list with 1,413 points and 832 boards, respectively.
“It’s obviously a great accomplishment to have finished second in both rebounds and scoring,” Klimowicz said. “But I could not have done either without my teammates giving me the ball or putting pressure on a shooter causing them to miss.”
Guard Alyssa Michella got it done from downtown, sinking four three-pointers in a 17-point effort.
The third senior, guard Lisa Koch, netted 13 points on the morning, including six from the free throw line.
“They did the job today,” Lions head coach Dawn Henderson said.
The Lord Jeffs started off the game hot, going on a 7-0 run before the Lions came roaring back with a 13-5 run of their own to take the first lead of the game at 13-12. Sophomore forward Kelsey Kutch scored six of the team’s points in that run.
The Lions went on yet another run, as Klimowicz and junior center Alexandra Gregorek scored a combined eight points in a 10-2 run. This gave the Lions the lead 27-21 at the break.
As the second half rolled around, the Lions increased their lead to 32-23 thanks to two baskets by Klimowicz and a trey by Michella. The Jeffs countered with a run of their own, taking an 11-2 stretch to knot up this tight game at 34-34.
The game stayed close until Amherst took a slight two-point edge at 62-60. However, as was the theme of the tournament for the College, the free throws made all the difference. Four makes from the line in the last 36.3 gave the Lions the victory.
With the win, the 28-5 Lions played in a school-record 33 games, winning 28. The finish at third place marks the best in team history.
“I could not be more proud of our team and their effort today,” Henderson said.
The College’s game with undefeated George Fox was tough from the start as they were overtaken by the Bruins 67-52.
The magic number in this game was three, and George Fox dominated the contest with their proficiency from beyond the arc.
The Bruins made 14-of-28 shots from long range, an NCAA Tournament record, including seven of those in the first half to take a 34-26 lead into the break. They were carrying all the momentum as well, as it was their biggest lead of the half.
The Lions had a difficult time penetrating the Bruins defense, as Klimowicz was neutralized in the post by her counterparts’ stingy play. She ended the contest with 19 points and nine rebounds, but only went 8-for-19 from the floor. This along with the Bruins catching fire from three-point range proved more than enough for the Lions, whose 13-game win streak was snapped in the process.
“Certainly, George Fox is a great team. They’ve got good balance,” Henderson said. “They did the things they do normally, and we didn’t do the things we do normally.”
In the end, the Lions’ Cinderella season did end exactly as planned, but it was more than anyone could have imagined.
“There are something like 418 DIII teams, we finished in third and were the first New Jersey Athletic Conference school to do so,” Klimowicz said. “The end of our season is a little bittersweet as we did not make it to that championship game, but we are proud of one another.”