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Lady Eagles beat SNU for NCCAA region title, trip to nationals

The OC Lady Eagles celebrate with the NCCAA Central Region championship banner after beating Southern Nazarene on Saturday.
The OC Lady Eagles celebrate with the NCCAA Central Region championship banner after beating Southern Nazarene on Saturday.

By Murray Evans
BARTLESVILLE, Okla. (March 9, 2013) – For the second time in a week, Oklahoma Christian ended an opponent’s double-digit winning streak. This time, it earned the Lady Eagles their first-ever trip to the National Christian College Athletic Association Championship.

Krista Stevens scored 20 points – including a gigantic 3-pointer in the final 70 seconds – and Katy O’Steen had 14 points and 13 rebounds as OC beat archrival Southern Nazarene 73-64 in the NCCAA Central Region title game on Saturday afternoon at the Mueller Sports Center.

OC (19-11) recorded its first women’s basketball postseason tournament title since 1986, when then-rookie head coach Stephanie Findley guided the Lady Eagles to the NAIA District 9 and NAIA Bi-District championships. Twenty-seven years later, Findley and the Lady Eagles finally have another postseason banner.

“It’s been a while,” Findley said. “It’s sweet. It’s sweet. You’ve got to play them as they come and we’ve had some big battles in the playoffs (with SNU) all throughout our history and this is another one.

“Every possession was important and it was important to keep our poise. The girls did that. My team executed so well today. It was just awesome. Just awesome.”

Since the NCCAA national tournament has an eight-team field, OC already has advanced to the national quarterfinals for just the fourth time in school history. Four OC players remain on the roster from the Lady Eagles’ last quarterfinal trip in the NAIA tournament in 2010 – Stevens, O’Steen, Madison Middle and Kaitlyn Morris.

OC will take a five-game winning streak into the NCCAA tournament, which will start Wednesday at Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind.

“I’m just at a loss for words,” said O’Steen, the Central Region player of the year. “I’m just so excited and happy and so proud of my team that they never gave up. They just fought. Their desire to win just drives the rest of us.”

OC ended the regular season last Saturday with an overtime win over Heartland Conference champion Texas-Permian Basin, ending UTPB’s 13-game winning streak. SNU (18-10) entered Saturday’s game on a 10-game run.

Top-seeded SNU and third-seeded OC had split a pair of regular-season games and the intensity of the rivalry was apparent from the opening tip. There were nine lead changes in the first 11 minutes of the game. The last one came when Roz Hamilton – playing on a gimpy ankle – hit a free throw with 9:06 left to put OC up 21-20.

The Lady Eagles never trailed after that, but SNU consistently kept the game close. OC led 38-34 at halftime before the Crimson Storm tied the game at 41-41 with 17:17 left on a basket by Aminata Fall, who finished with 24 points, 16 rebounds and six blocked shots.

Fall’s basket with 16:09 left made it 43-43. That was the last time SNU would be even.

Freshman Jasmine Hinton, who scored 10 points, hit a 15-foot jumper to start a 6-0 run by the Lady Eagles. OC eventually pushed the lead to 62-54 on a put-back by O’Steen with 4:42 left, but the Crimson Storm answered with baskets by Kristen Milster and Fall to pull within 62-58 at the 2:50 mark.

Holding the lead “kept our intensity up,” O’Steen said, “because we knew we couldn’t give it back to them. We knew if they were to get the lead back and get some momentum, it would make it tougher for us. It was great that we could execute everything. Once we slowed down and just concentrated, we could execute anything on them. We knew we could.”

O’Steen hit two free throws and Oumoul Thiam went 1-of-2 from the line, making the score 64-59. Stevens launched a 22-foot jumper from the top of the key that hit the rim twice and fell through, giving OC a 67-59 lead with 1:07 left.

Logan McKee, Stevens and O’Steen each hit a pair of free throws in the final 28.2 seconds to seal the win.

OC consistently posted up anybody and everybody inside and the strategy proved effective, particularly for the Lady Eagles’ guards. Many of Stevens’ baskets came on post-up plays. She finished 7-of-9 from the field.

“They’re so big, you just have to try to pick your battle and then go fight that individual battle each time down the floor,” Findley said. “That’s what we were doing – taking a look at the personnel they had, what personnel we had and which play we thought would work best against that lineup. The girls did a great job of taking advantage what they gave us.”

The Lady Eagles also outrebounded the taller SNU squad 42-38, thanks in good part to strong rebounding from their guards. Stevens and Daisha Gonzaque each grabbed six rebounds and McKee had four.

SNU had won 13 straight games against the Lady Eagles before OC won 76-59 in the Eagles’ Nest on Dec. 8. Now OC has its first two-game winning streak over the Crimson Storm since the 2005-06 season.

“This was sweeter than winning at home last time,” O’Steen said. “Those are the only two times we’ve ever beaten SNU since I’ve been here. I want to cry I’m so happy!”

OC improved its postseason title-game record to 2-2. The Lady Eagles lost Sooner Athletic Conference tournament championship games in 2000 and 2006.

“These girls earned it and deserve it,” Findley said. “I couldn’t think of a better senior class to earn it than Katy O’Steen and Madison. Madison was a great teammate today. She didn’t get hardly any minutes until the end there and she’s still a very positive personality that carries the rest of the bench with her.”

Thiam scored 14 points for SNU.