Southern Nazarene scores 21st win with a national title

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WINONA LAKE, Ind. — Twenty-One; let that number sink in for a second. That's the number of wins Southern Nazarene rattled off in its first year in NCAA Division II play. And to top it off, the Crimson Storm get to hang their eighth national championship banner after SNU knocked off California Baptist, 74-72, for the for the NCCAA National Championship.

There may have been a few questions after the Crimson Storm went 4-7 through the first 11 games, but make no mistake about it, these ladies can play. Southern Nazarene turned around the season and went 9-1 in the second half of the Great American Conference season and went 17-3 in the final 20 games of the year to finish at 21-10.

“This run has been amazing,” said SNU Head Coach Derek Dorris. “The way the girls have battled and not lost sight is fantastic. They bought in to what we were telling them and they accepted the roles they were asked to play. We had great leadership from top to bottom. I've never seen our bench that fired up.”

California Baptist came into the night's contest riding a 15-game winning streak and touted a 25-5 record that including a Pacific West Conference regular season title. The PacWest produced two NCAA Tournament teams this year outside of CBU.

That streak was snapped as the Crimson Storm had four players in double-figures, including Annie Kassongo who tied a career-high with 23 points. The senior also pulled down 11 rebounds for her third double-double of the year and added two steals, two assists and a block. Kassongo went 11-for-16 from the field.

Oumoul Thiam hit clutch buckets all night as the senior dropped 18 points and dished out four assists. Kristin Milster was big off of the bench for SNU as the junior went 5-for-10 from the field and had 14 points, including a clutch three late to give the Storm a late lead that it never gave up. Aminata Fall also had 13 points, five rebounds and set the school's single-season record for blocks as she posted three more to move her total to 96.

“Anytime you want to strive in anything business related, everyone has to do their part and we got that the last 20 games of the season,” said Dorris. “There's a lot of things that happened that don't always go on the stat sheet like hustle in practice or doing the little things we ask them to do. This team got that and that's why we finished so strong.”

The Crimson Storm faced an 11-point deficit with 5:56 left to play in the first half, and had its top scorer from the last 12 games on the bench in foul trouble as Fall had three fouls (after a heated debate among both SNU and CBU coaches and officials from the NCCAA). That's when Milster started a 17-6 run as SNU closed the gap and tied it at 37 at the half.

The Storm found themselves down again, 45-39, early in the second half, but SNU went on a 24-9 run capped by a Thiam jumper as it took its biggest lead of the game at 63-54 with 7:27 left to play.

CBU didn't go away.

The Lancers scored nine straight to knot it for the ninth time of the night and it was back and forth from that point on. The Storm took a late advantage at 69-66 with 2:45 left, but the Lancers again answered with four straight to lead 70-69 with 1:21 left.

Milster then delivered the dagger when the junior buried a trey from dead on to put SNU up 72-70 with 1:01 left. Thiam added two more free throws to take a 74-70 lead with 26 seconds left, but CBU came back with one more scare. The Lancers got within two with 17 seconds left and then stole the inbounds pass and missed three straight attempts in the paint before Kassongo came away with a rebound. However, the senior was called for a travel and the ball was given back to CBU with 2.7 seconds left. The Lancers' Simone Holmes took the pass on the right wing and drove to her left across the lane and floated off the rim and out as SNU rushed the court on the buzzer.

Southern Nazarene held the Lancers to just 34.6 percent shooting from the field marking the third straight game that SNU held its opponent to under 35 percent from the floor. SNU shot 45.8 percent from the field and held opponents to just 31.7 percent shooting in the NCCAA Tournament.

It was the third straight year, and the sixth time in seven seasons, that SNU recorded a 20-win season. It was also the last game for Thiam, Kassongo, Marsha Durr, Katie Bebee and Samantha O'Shields who close their career's out with a national title.