NKU Stuns Coyotes in Elite Eight Finals

NKU Stuns Coyotes in Elite Eight Finals
For 31 consecutive times this basketball season, The University of South Dakota Coyotes have managed to have scored more points than their opponents when the final buzzer sounded.

There were times Saturday, during the NCAA Division II women's basketball championship matchup at Kearney, NE, when it appeared the USD players once again were going to dominate their opponents and claim the tournament trophy.

The Northern Kentucky Norse, however, had other ideas.

The Kentucky team had trailed the Coyotes by three points at halftime, and later would trail USD by a dozen early in the second half.

During halftime, and later during a timeout, Northern Kentucky coach Nancy Winstel had a simple message for her players.

She told them, simply, to keep at it.

NKU downed South Dakota 63-58 in Saturday's match, claiming the NCAA trophy and stealing the dreams of both the Coyote players and their fans, who were certain they were destined to win the crown.

The Norse made it clear from the start that despite not even being ranked in the tournament – compared to USD's notable number three status – they were going to be a force that would keep the Coyotes quite busy on the court.

Kentucky scored first, and forced USD to miss its first attempt at the basket. Coyote Bridget Yoerger, however, hit a three-pointer in the first minute of the contest to give USD a one-point lead.

A see-saw battle ensued, and with 12:10 left in the first half, the score was knotted at 13.

Coyote fans, who filled all of the bleachers behind one hoop and half of the seating along courtside, watched their team suddenly turn cold offensively.

Amber Hegge missed a layup. A three-point attempt by Ashley Robinette failed to find the rim.

She tried again, and missed again.

Shannon Daly tried her luck from the perimeter, hoping to score three. Her shot, too missed.

Jeana Hoffman fired from long range, also, and missed.

For approximately five minutes, the Coyotes attempts to score failed.

Northern Kentucky was having much better luck. With 6:27 left in the first half, they were enjoying a 21-16 lead.

The Coyotes fought back. Jeana Hoffman sank a jumper, followed by a three-pointer by Daly.

With just over a minute left in the period, Jenna Hoffman sank a free throw, and a second before the buzzer sounded, Jeana Hoffman sank a layup, allowing her team to go the locker room at halftime with a 26-23 lead.

The Coyote women looked like a different team when play began in the second period. Their ability to score under high pressure situations appeared to have returned.

Jeana Hoffman scored a three-pointer early in the half. Yoerger and Jasmine Mosley also scored.

Slowly, but surely, the Coyotes began to pull away. With just under 15 minutes left in the game, they lead 38-26.

Northern Kentucky closed the gap to 41-36 with 10 minutes left to play.

Jeana Hoffman responded with a three-pointer, followed by a lay-up from Mosley to give the Coyotes an eight point, 46-38 lead with just over eight minutes to play.

In the last seven minutes of the game, however, USD went cold.

They only made five free throws and one field goals in the remainder of the game.

Northern Kentucky played as if they sensed the Coyotes were in trouble.

Junior Cassie Brannen sparked the team, scoring 15 of her 18 points in the second half.

South Dakota was dominated height-wise by Northern Kentucky. One way the Coyotes stayed in the game so long, and at times appeared headed toward clinching the championship, was its strong defensive play, and a spread offense where all five players line up on the perimeter looking to drive to the basket or dish the ball outside to three-point shooters.

Northern Kentucky (28-8) finally began to take advantage of that height late in the second half with Brannen showing the way.

"Cassie really sparked us. It was huge when she was coming down and making layups," said junior guard Jessie Slack, who finished with 11 points and five assists. "You get her the ball in position to score, she's probably going to do something with it."

Angela Healy, voted the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, added 14 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Danyelle Echoles gave the Norse four players in double figures, scoring 12 points.

With the score 49-40, Slack hit back-to-back baskets, of which one was a 3-pointer, to cut the lead to 49-45.

Brannen scored the Norse's next nine points, giving Northern Kentucky the lead it would never give up. Healy scored Northern Kentucky's last basket with 52 seconds left to give the Norse a 56-53 lead. They finished the game making 7 of 11 free throws to spoil the day for the Coyotes, their more than 2,000 fans who made the four-hour drive to Kearney and Lavin, who had earlier announced his retirement.

Northern Kentucky's players said they enjoyed playing in front of more than 3,000 fans, even if two-thirds of the crowd cheered for the other team.

"We kind of feed off it. We look at it as everybody's cheering for us," Slack said. "We'd rather play in front of a lot of people. It was a fun environment. It was loud."

"'Let's go 'Yotes' sounds like 'Let's go Norse,'" Echoles said.

All-American Jeana Hoffman and Bridget Yoerger, both of South Dakota, were named to the Elite Eight All-Tournament Team.

Angela Healy of Northern Kentucky was named the Most Outstanding Player and was joined on the all-tournament team by teammate Cassie Brannen. Healy had 14 points and 13 rebounds and Brannen scored 18 points against USD.

Hoffman led the Coyotes in scoring with 19 points while hitting 5-of-17 shots from three-point range. She finished the season with 615 points, which is the third best total in school history. Hoffman, who had her 65th double-digit scoring game of her career, finished with 127 three-point field goals, which is the most in school history.

Yoerger had a team-high nine rebounds while also scoring four points. Jenna Hoffman had nine points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals. She finished the season with 79 steals and tied Ann Pancoast (1983-84) for fifth on the USD season chart.

In addition, Robinette had eight points and six rebounds. Hegge, who had seven points and two assists, broke USD's single season record for blocked shots with 54.

The Norse, the Great Lakes Region champion, utilized the foul line to gain an advantage against the Coyotes. They made 23-of-33 for 69.7 percent while USD was 13-of-19 for 68.4 percent. South Dakota, the nation's top three-point shooting team at 9.5 per game, made just 7-of-30 attempts for 23.3 percent from long distance. In addition, USD was just 19-of-59 for 32.2 percent from the field. Northern Kentucky did not shoot much better from the field at 35.4 percent (17-of-48) while they were 6-of-14 for 42.9 percent from three-point range.

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