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Sioux City Journal
Cardinal Stritch’s Emily Neitzel gets boxed in by Saint Francis’ Katie Baer, left, and Paige Frisch during the NAIA Championship semifinal game.
Saint Francis 68, Cardinal Stritch 64

Cougars reach cusp of title

Shurn seals win, hits 2 free throws in closing seconds

– Thanks to Cardinal Stritch’s relentless defense on inbounds plays, Paige Frisch and undefeated Saint Francis weren’t able to run their designed play in the game’s closing 30 seconds Monday night.

Still, the Cougars hung on for their narrowest victory in several weeks. Skylarr Shurn hit a pair of free throws with 6.3 seconds remaining for a team that advanced to the title game of the NAIA Division II Women’s National Basketball Championships with a 68-64 victory at the Tyson Events Center.

Kalah Baer scored 16 points for Saint Francis (37-0), which will make its first title game appearance since 1999 when action tips off at 8 p.m. today.

Frisch and Jennelle Wilson combined for eight 3-point field goals while each adding 15 points for coach Gary Andrews’ squad, bidding to be the first undefeated national champion since Morningside went 38-0 in 2009.

Frisch, who made each of her first four 3-point tries, would just as soon forget the game’s nine ticks. Cardinal Stritch (27-7), which rallied from a late first-half 10-point deficit, used its defense in the rally, pulling within 66-64 on Nateah Beimborn’s inside basket with 33 seconds left and forced Saint Francis’ 14th turnover of the game with a chance to go for the tie.

Looking for a steal, Frisch and the Wolves’ Mika Passini tangled near halfcourt. Fouled on the play with 8.8 seconds left, Passini missed the free throw, Shurn (12 points, 7 assists, 2 blocked shots) grabbed the defensive board and later made the game-clinching free throws for the Crossroads League champions.

“I don’t know what I was thinking because she wasn’t their best player or their best free throw shooter,” Frisch said. “She was timid, so I was going for the steal. Oh, gosh, I would have felt terrible (if Passini made the free throws).

“We weren’t doing a very good job of getting the ball inbounds. We were up by four, so we tried to skip the ball inbounds and run the clock down so they couldn’t shoot a three.”

It was the closest margin of victory for Saint Francis since a 66-63 Crossroads League escape at Grace on Feb. 8. Several of Andrews’ players weren’t playing their normal positions at the time with 5-11 sophomore forward Brooke Ridley out with an ankle injury midway through the second half.

Ridley, Saint Francis’ third-leading scorer with a 14.5 average, is questionable for tonight’s game.

“We made some poor decisions taking it out of bounds instead of throwing to the girls that were open,” Andrews said. “We just wanted to hang on. We didn’t rebound very well, but we found a way to win. It’s the first time all year we’ve blown a lead like that, but we were able to hang on and we’re playing tomorrow night.

“We might have been tired, it’s hard to say,” added the 13th-year head coach, whose career 296-132 record includes a 14-7 mark in national tournament games. “(Cardinal Stritch) is bigger and stronger than us. Their size and physicality gave us a little trouble.”

Michelle Piepenburg scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds for Cardinal Stritch. Becky Gilbreath added 15 points while Emily Neitzel finished with 12 points and 10 boards for a squad that had a 39-32 rebound advantage and held Saint Francis 15 points under its season scoring average.

Coach John Pfaffl’s squad held the Cougars without a field goal for the first 7 1/2 minutes of the second half. Forty-six seconds after Julie Raeder’s 73rd 3-point field goal of the season, the 6-1 Piepenburg knotted the game at 48 with an inside basket with 13:03 left.

Wilson ended the Cougars’ drought with a 3-pointer 34 seconds later and Jessica Harrison stretched the lead to 53-48.

From there, Saint Francis never lost its lead.

“I think we proved we can play with the teams down here,” Pfaffl said. “Our team showed courage in the way we fought back. Hats off to Saint Francis. They play great basketball. They made big plays and took advantage of errors on our part. We made too many mistakes. You can’t get down against a team like Saint Francis.”

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