By Chris Schmidbauer, Sports Information Director
Bethlehem, PA -- Only two teams are left standing tonight in the NJCAA Division III National Championship Tournament, and the No. 3 seeded Owens Express Women's basketball team is still standing. The Express used an aggressive defensive attack to slow down the No. 2 seeded North Country Saints en route to a 54-47 victory.
The game got off to a slow start offensively for both teams. Owens trailed 9-7 midway through the first period, with both teams struggling to find their pace. Moreina Moore would score on a tip in even the score at 9-9 with 4:22 to play in the first quarter. It was enough to jump start the Owens offense. The Express would close the quarter on an 11-2 run, most of which came from the foul line. Owens would lead the game 18-11 after the first period.
Points were at a premium again to start the second. Both teams combined to score just twelve total points over the first five minutes of the second period. Owens would hold a 24-17 lead with 5:56 to play in the half off of a made jump shot by Moore. North Country would cut the lead to five with 4:03 to play in the half on a Ty Taylor layup. A minute and half later, Moore would push the Express lead back to seven off a fastbreak layup. Ty Taylor would bank in a three from the left wing for the Saints, and a Mariah Roach layup with 27 seconds left would trim the Owens lead to 26-24. The Express would get another clutch jumper from Moreina Moore to score as time expired to take a four point lead into the locker room at 28-24.
Each team would trade baskets to begin the third. Moore would make a layup to open the third quarter scoring to expand the Owens lead to six, but North Country's Oiivia Carder drilled a three from the top of the key to cut the Express lead to three. Moore would come right back and hit a jumper to answer. The Saints would trim the Owens lead to one basket on a free throw from Ty Taylor at 34-32 with 5:58 to go in the third. Owens would respond with a pair of baskets but the Saints were able to trim the Express lead to three points with 1:35 left in the third. Owens split a pair of free throws over the last 95 seconds to take a 39-35 to the final quarter.
Shyah Wheeler would go on a personal 6-2 run to open the fourth quarter for the Express to give Owens a 45-37 lead with 8:14 to play, and Moore's layup thirty seconds later gave Owens a 10 point lead at 47-37 forcing a North Country time out. The Saints would answer back with five unanswered points to cut the lead in half with 6:49 to play in the game. The lead would be just four for the red and black with 2:55 to play, when Whitney Thames huge offensive rebound and putback would push the lead back to six points at 51-45. One possession later, Wheeler's three from the left corner would give Owens a commanding nine point lead at 54-45 with just 2:25 to play in the contest. North Country scored a basket with 19 seconds left, but Owens was able to dribble out the clock to claim a 54-47 victory.
For the second straight night, Moreina Moore would lead the Express in scoring with 19 points and claiming a double-double by grabbing 11 rebounds as well. Taylor Works would add 12 points but it was her defense that stood out during the game. Work drew North Country's leading scorer, Olivia Carder, who was averaging 18.6 points per game. The sophomore's physical defense proved troublesome for Carder, and she only scored 10 points during the ball game.
Shyah Wheeler managed to finish in double figures with 11 points, despite battling foul trouble most of the night. The Perrysburg duo of Whitney Thames and Tori Kopp were crucial, combing for 22 rebounds between the two of them. Thames would finish with seven points and 12 boards, while Kopp grabbed 10 caroms. Despite only scoring only two points, Liliana Velazquez also provided crucial minutes of the bench, especially in the first half, when Shyah Wheeler with 6:31 to play in the first quarter.
Owens shot just 32.8% (20-61) from the field for the game, but they were able to hold the Saints to just 29.4% (20-68) shooting from the floor.
The Express are now 25-8 on the season and they are heading to tomorrow night's National Championship Final. The Owens Women's Basketball program has never played in a National Championship game.
They will play the No.1 seed, Hostos, who is 27-5. They defeated the No. 8 seed, Anne Arundel, on Thursday by a final of 83-37. They followed that up with a semifinal win over Western Tech by a final of 68-47. The Caimans are the defending Division III National Champion in women's basketball. They beat Rock Valley 58-52 in the title match a year ago.
Tip off will be at 7 PM from the Arthur L. Scott Center on the campus of Northampton University. Fans can also watch the game via NJCAA TV. The game can be accessed by clicking here.