If there was any doubt that the Lady Cats are a second half team and can never be counted out, it was erased Thursday afternoon in Winona Lake, Indiana. Trailing by as many as 15 points and being out of sync for the first 20 minutes of their semifinal matchup with Grace College, the Lady Cats needed determination, grit, and a lot of hard work if they were going to advance to the championship game.
The game got off to a rough start as the Lancers of Grace College had adrenaline flowing. The hometown crowd added to their determination, and they quickly responded to baskets by Taylor Rush and Kayley Frank. The Lancers went on a 12-0 run before the Lady Cats would get another Frank basket to break the string. A pair of free throws by Frank at the 2:17 mark cut the gap to 15-8 and the Lady Cats found some rhythm. Baskets by Susanna Moran and Rush closed the gap to 18-13 at the end of the first quarter, but the Lady Cats still had plenty of work to do.
With a solid post presence, Grace was not allowing the Lady Cats to attack the basket inside. A 10-0 run by the Lancers to open the second quarter spelled trouble for the Lady Cats. Annie Noah finally broke through for a bucket at the 5:41 mark and it appeared Grace was in full control. Trailing 30-15, Jordan Wersinger scored with 3:21 remaining in the half and then again on the next Lady Cat possession. Grace continued to apply pressure and their size stymied the Lady Cat offense. With time running down, a Rush basket and a free throw by Wersinger would be all the Lady Cats could muster and the deficit was 34-22 at the intermission.
The Lady Cats needed more second half heroics and their move needed to happen soon. Grace had controlled the first half and they were 20 minutes away from their first trip to the NCCAA Championship game. Taylor Rush opened the third quarter scoring with a basket, but Grace responded with a basket of their own. Rush connected from long range and the lead was back to single digits, and there was a shift in momentum. Jordan Wersinger scored to add to the push before the Lancers countered with a layup. Isabel Rohlfing added a pair of free throws and Wersinger scored with 6:43 remaining in the quarter. With the deficit cut to 38-34, the confidence of the Lady Cats was returning, and Grace was feeling the pressure. A 5-0 Lancer run provided a reprieve before Susanna Moran drained a free throw with 2:40 showing on the clock. A Taylor Rush three-point play was followed by another Moran basket, and the gap was reduced to 44-40. A Grace bucket at the buzzer squelched the Lady Cat momentum, but there were still 10 more minutes to play.
Grace was tasked with holding off the determined Lady Cats and the final quarter provided plenty of time for a comeback to be completed. Grace knew they needed to respond, and they hoped the shot at the third quarter buzzer would provide the momentum shift. Two quick Lancer baskets to open the final 10 minutes of play increased the gap to 49-40 and Grace was feeling better about their position. A Taylor Rush basket and a Wersinger three-point play quickly took the confidence away and returned the wind to the Lady Cat sails. Grace responded with a basket and a three before Kayley Frank drained a pair of free throws, and Rush connected for two again. The Lady Cats were challenging but could not seem to get over the hump. With the clock becoming a factor, the Lady Cats needed to make a move. Now trailing 54-49, and with just over four minutes to play, the Lady Cats were poised to make a final push. Jordan Wersinger hit a free throw and the defense continued to be a strength. Wersinger and Rush baskets sandwiched a Lancer basket, and the gap was cut to 56-54. A steal, drive, and basket by Blythe Benefield tied the score and the tension was mounting. Grace continued to answer the challenges of the Lady Cats and each time the score was tied, the Lancers found a way to score. Kayley Frank drained a pair of free throws and followed with a basket to tie the score at 60-60 with 2:09 remaining. The Lady Cat defense stepped up for a stop, and with 1:05 left on the clock, a Jordan Wersinger bucket came off a pass from Annie Noah, for the first Lady Cat lead since the first quarter. Grace tied it on the next possession and regained the lead with a free throw. A pair of free throws by Blythe Benefield returned the lead to the Lady Cats with :28 left to play. Susanna Moran came up with a big, blocked shot on the defensive end and a foul sent Taylor Rush to the line. With ice water in her veins, the freshman guard hit nothing but net on her two tries and the lead was 66-63 with 12 seconds remaining. A long Lancer three bounced off and Wersinger rebounded and was fouled. Wersinger iced the win with her two free throws and the Lady Cats took the 68-63, come from behind win, to the championship game.
Taylor Rush and Jordan Wersinger led the comeback charge for the Lady Cats with 23 and 20 points respectively. Kayley Frank added 12 points and Susanna Moran tacked on five, Blythe Benefield chipped in four, and Annie Noah and Isabel Rohlfing each contributed two.
The Lady Cats will compete for the NCCAA DI National Championship at 1:00 PM (CT) Saturday, against Oakland City University.