It’s down to 16 for the NAIA women’s national title … but just getting to this point is quite an accomplishment.
A week ago, the selection show announced the brackets of hopefuls headed to opening rounds A rigorous schedule streamed from 16 host sites boasting 64 teams opened the tournament with Bracket A on March 11th. The 16 remaining teams now head to Sioux City on March 17th with promise of being crowned as the 41st NAIA National Champion on March 22nd.
THE NEW TOURNAMENT FORMAT, TAKE TWO
Essentially, the new format of the NAIA National Tournament unfolds for the first time this season. With last season’s Covid-19 restrictions, what should have mirrored the NCAA’s March Madness was instead just 48 teams at eight opening-round sites.
We barely saw a glimpse of how the bidding process worked or how teams were assigned to first-round locations.
This year’s tournament rolled out a 64-team bracket, with 38 automatic bids and 26 at-large bids on the women’s side.
With criteria unique to each conference, auto berths were given to 38 teams. For the remaining 26 at-large bids, it was a more complex selection criteria determined by the 12-member Women’s Basketball National Selection Committee.
The main criteria included Ratings Percentage Index, winning percentage, strength of schedule, Net efficiency, and Area Rating vs. the final Top 25 Coaches Poll. Secondary benchmarks from a pool of teams that met a certain RPI rating included a balance of the Coaches Polls, Conference Record vs. all teams receiving votes in the final coaches poll and vs. all teams receiving votes at the committee, common opponents and head-to-head as well.
The 64 teams were seeded into four pods and four quadrants considering travel costs, geographic location and making every attempt not to pair conference teams in opening rounds.
The four quadrants — Naismith, Cramer, Duer and Liston — were seeded by the selection committee using the same criteria as that of the original at-large selections.
The Not-Quite Final Four
Southeastern Fire (FL) of the Sun Conference came in hot with a perfect 16-0 conference record, a sixth conference title captured and nearly perfect overall season of 29-1.
Closing out their season on a 23-game win streak, they added two more at the opening rounds. The battle versus Rust (Miss.) was gritty for the top-seeded Fire as they relied heavily on second-chance shots to defeat the Bearcats, 66-62.
Rebecca Cook grabbed 11 rebounds and sealed the win, knocking down free throws in the final seven seconds. Angela Perry, hungry from tip-off, secured nine of her 14 points in the first quarter. Raegan Linster came through in quarter three with six of her 11 points while the Fire’s defense held the Bearcats to their lowest shooting percentages of the season. Southeastern faces twelfth-seeded Bethel University (Tenn.) on Thursday.
Thomas More (KY) from the Mid-South Conference returns after falling to Westmont in the finals last season. The Saints proved impressive run with a 26-4 overall record and holding steadily within the top 5 spots in the coaches polls throughout the season. Thomas More is hunting a title to leave their mark before turning NCAA Division II in July, 2022 after a two-year membership with the NAIA.
Junior guard Zoie Barth scored 15 points with four steals vs. ninth seeded Grand View of Iowa while sophomore Alex Smith matched her 15 points while claiming eight boards. While committing only seven turnovers, the Saints shot 52.4 % to the Vikings’ 31.5% while scoring 22 points on 13 Grandview turnovers. The Saints’ bench added 46 points in the 86-62 win.
The Saints face-off with number four seed Bryan College Lions March 17th.
The Westmont (CA) Warriors battled the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, Drovers in a nail-biting game that came down to a tight 50-47 finale. Westmont struggled against USAO’s pressure and Milagros Carrera’s scoring abilities as she closed her season with her fifth double-double, racking up 18 points, 16 rebounds, three assists and two steals.
After the half, the Warriors caught fire, especially in the fourth quarter. After trailing by eight until the last four minutes, Westmont found momentum with a 12-1 run. NAIA Player of the Year Stefanie Berberabe and Golden State Athletic Conference Player of the Year Iyree Jarrett, who both averaged 15.1 ppg this season, were ready to punch Westmont’s ticket to Sioux City in the final seconds of the game. Jarrett sank a three with less than 90 seconds left to give the Warriors their first lead after a 20-minute deficit to USAO.
Destiny Okankwo had her first and only block of the game right before the buzzer, denying Carrero’s 3-pointer and sealing the Warriors victory of 50-47. Westmont achieved their goal of keeping USAO under 50 points. Berberabe finished with 18 points and six rebounds with Gabriella Stoll adding 11 points and six rebounds as well. The Warriors play Central Methodist on March 18th.
Campbellsville (KY), also from the Mid-South Conference, smothered Benedictine’s Ravens with a 74-44 victory. From tip-off, the Tigers went full throttle on scoring and pressure, holding the Ravens to single digits for three of four quarters. After the half with a 25-point deficit, the Ravens brought more intensity out of the locker room but it wasn’t enough to overcome the deficit.
By the final buzzer, the Tigers suffocating defense robbed Benedictine’s Senior Ali Brzozowski of hitting her 1,000th career point by holding her to 10 of the 16 needed. The Ravens outplayed the Tigers in two categories: 25-23 on the boards and 13-2 on second-chance points. The Tigers shot at 51.8% and scored 20 points off 18 forced turnovers.
Tigers freshman Courtney Pritchett led with 16 points with Lexy Lake and Sarah Sutton adding 12 each. Lauren Lee dished 10 assists.
Top-seed Campbellsville will take on fifth-seeded Dord of Iowa in the Round of 16 March 17th.
Two Make the Trek
A pair of teams traveling to stir up some trouble for the number one seeds are Bryan and Central Methodist.
Bryan College (TN) of the Appalachian Athletic Conference has been making headlines, polls and rankings this season under new coach Bryon Lawhon. With a strong starting five and a bench full of high-IQ players ready to contribute, the Lions had an undefeated season until falling to Reinhardt in their conference semifinals. Their program boasted four of the five conference awards and is making history heading to the Round of 16, riding a 32-win season. The Lions made it to the Round of 16 in 2020 but the tournament was canceled.
Sophomore Gracee Dishman led the attack with 24 points and six rebounds followed by Kaitlynn Hennessee’s 19 points, 5 rebounds and four assists in a 90-86 OT win over Pikeville. The Lions will face Thomas More on March 17th.
Central Methodist (MO) out of the Heart of America Athletic Conference advances to the Round of 16 for the first time since 2018. With all five starters scoring double digits, it was a full team effort with assists on 23 of their 46 made baskets. Shooting at an impressive 79.3% on free throws, 59.2% on field goals and 47.8% from the arc, they thumped 12-seed Talladega, 118-62.
Senior guard Arleighshya McElroy, a West Virginia transfer and HOA’s Newcomer of the Year, Player of the Year and all-conference first team led the Eagles with 33 points, which marked her 13th game of the season scoring more than 30. Leianya Massenat added 19 points and Kedranea’ Addison 14. Leah Johnson produced a double-double boasting 16 points and 11 rebounds while Eternati Willock almost hit a triple-double while adding 10 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.
With a 48-32 advantage on the boards, the Eagles took advantage of scoring 26 points on Talladega’s 21 turnovers, also adding 19 second-chance points.
The fourth-seeded Eagles will face Westmont on March 18th.
Tune-In from Anywhere
All games will be streamed on the NAIA Network, where fans can watch live games, view stats and interact socially. Day passes and all-championship tournament passes are available for purchase. ESPN3 will broadcast the championship on March 22nd.
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