SHAWNEE - Like two fighters standing toe-to-toe in the middle of the ring waiting for the other to blink, Northern A&M College finally won the stare-down with Northern Oklahoma College-Enid as the Lady Norse earned a 58-57 victory in overtime to capture the Women's Division I Region II Tournament Championship Sunday afternoon in the Oklahoma Baptist University Noble Complex.
While snapping a three-year run by the fifth ranked NOC-Enid Lady Jets, coach Jim Rowland's Lady Norse earned a return trip to the "Big Dance" for the first time since 2007. The Lady Norse carry a 23-9 season record to Salina, Kan., March 20-24, for the National Junior Collegiate Athletic Association National Tournament.
Coach Scott Morris' defending Region II Champion Lady Jets finish 29-4 on the year.
"What more could a fan want with the top four teams in the region playing in the semifinals and then the top two seeds battling it out for the championship," Rowland said. "Scott and I were talking before the game and we both agreed that this would be a great title game and it was.
"I told our girls that I wanted us to throw the first punch and the last punch in this knock down, drag out fight we were in," Rowland said. "Unfortunately, they scored first and got that punch in, but we delivered the knockout blow at the end.
"Our girls just kept fighting, and fighting, and fighting and I'm so proud of them," Rowland said. "This game is what good basketball is all about because not only do both coaches respect each other, but both programs respect each other."
It would have been easy for the No. 2 seed Lady Norse to 'fold their tent" once an 11-point lead (46 to 35) evaporated in the final 6:33 of regulation play. After all, the Lady Jets had won both regular season games (59-58 on Nov. 29 in Enid) and (59-57 on Feb. 2 in Miami). The Lady Jets even knocked the Lady Norse out of the 2011 semifinals with a 75-57 win on the OBU court.
"We're both going to coach our girls to play as hard as they can, as long as they can and both teams did that," Rowland said. "Scott does a great job getting his kids ready to play and they gave it all they had.
"But, our girls came into this game knowing they were going to win," Rowland said. "They went out and proved it."
After the two teams battled to a 50-50 draw through 40 minutes, the Lady Jets drew first blood in the five-minute overtime on a layup by Justice Payne.
Back-to-back 3-point field goals by guards BriAnna Garza and Eliana Fernandez rallied NEO to a 56-54 lead with 2:41 left in overtime.
Payne (5-9 from Perkins) hit a short jump shot and Chelsea Bates hit the back end of a two-shot free throw situation to give NOC-Enid a 57-56 lead with 1:32 showing on the clock.
Lady Norse sophomore forward Wilka Montout (6-5 from French Guiana) showed why she was selected both Region II Most Valuable Player and tournament MVP by scoring on a layup with 1:06 left in overtime as NEO regained the lead.
True to the very nature of this game, the Lady Jets had a chance to regain the lead as freshman center Marisha Wallace (6-2 from Midwest City) missed a sure layup off the side of the basket as the horn sounded and Rowland exploded onto the floor.
"We've been knocked out in the semifinals four years in a row and I just couldn't contain myself," Rowland said. "I just can't say enough about how proud I am of the way these girls never stopped fighting."
Defense was the "bill-of-fare" in the first half as neither team could establish any offensive consistency. The lead changed hands six times in the first 12 minutes before two free throws by Wallace and consecutive field goals by Tiffany Bellamy and Chelsea Bates gave the Lady Jets a 21-14 cushion at the 6:15 juncture.
Two free throws by Montout and a 3-pointer by Fernandez rallied NEO to a 21-19 deficit with 3:01 before halftime.
With the score tied at 25-25, Lady Norse freshman guard Megan Schieber sank the front end of a two-shot free throw situation as NEO carried a precarious 26-25 lead to the locker room at intermission.
"Eliana and Kendrea (Harbert) did a great job defensively of holding their leading scorers Ashlynn Briegge and Payne well in check the entire game," Rowland said. "We just locked them up and held Briegge scoreless and Payne to just 7 total points."
After trailing 30-26 in the first four minutes of the second half, the Lady Norse went on a 16-3 run for a 42-33 margin with 8:51 showing on the scoreboard. Six straight points by Harbert and four points by Montout in the paint along with 3-pointers by Fernandez and Schieber accounted for NEO's explosion.
A putback from Montout and two free throws by Garza gave the Lady Norse a 46-35 lead with 7:33 left in regulation action.
Five free throws and a 3-pointer by Bates along with a trey from Vanessa Bledsoe and a layup by Wallace blasted the Lady Jets to a 48-46 lead with 1:51 showing on the clock.
"We were trying to rush things and taking bad shots," Rowland said. "Then they went to a zone on defense and we were tired and it kind of got us a little bit."
Ironically, neither coach called a time out the entire first half and it wasn't until the 9:22 juncture that Morris signaled for the first break in the action.
"Neither one of us called a time out in the first half and I think both of us had that mentality that we were just going to play it out," Rowland said. "But, I wasn't going to call a time out because I didn't want to give his kids any rest and I'm sure he didn't want to call one for the same reason.
"We just wanted to see who would get tired first and fortunately he called it," Rowland said. "Our girls knew in their hearts that they were going to beat Enid at any cost."
Over the final minute of regulation play, two free throws each by NEO's Ilze Teilane and Fernandez along with two by Bates fashioned the 50-50 tie once the buzzer sounded.
Montout led all scorers with 24 total points for the Lady Norse along with Fernandez 17, Harbert 6, Garza 5, Schieber 4 and Teilane 2.
Schieber, Montout and Teilane each grabbed six rebounds to lead NEO.
The Lady Norse connected on 19 of 60, including 7 of 30 from the 3-point area, for 32 percent from the field and 13 of 16 for 81 per cent at the free throw line.
Wallace paced the Lady Jets with 18 points and 13 rebounds as NOC-Enid held a 45 to 36 advantage on the boards. Bates contributed 17 points, Bellamy 10, Payne 7, Bledsoe 3 and Sherri Lang 2 points.
While Montout was selected tournament MVP, teammate Katy Cooper along with Bates and Payne and Seminole's Jalissa Council comprised the all-tournament team.