BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – The Indiana University Kokomo women’s basketball team continues to surprise opponents and rack up program-firsts. In its first two full seasons of action, the young Cougars were an understandable 24 games under .500 but showing improvement. As such, expectations were not high from outsiders – the Cougars were picked by conference coaches to finish eighth overall in the River States Conference and a distant third in the West Division behind Asbury and IU Southeast.
Consider the coaches wrong. And in the process, IU Kokomo qualified for its first NAIA Division II National Championship after capturing its first West Division title in the conference.
In an amazing break-out third season of action, the IU Kokomo women roared to the top of the West Division, garnering one of the two number one seeds for the RSC Women’s Basketball Tournament. And much to the delight of the home crowd at Cougar Gym, IUK held its seeding and defeated University of Rio Grande (74-62) and Ohio Christian University (77-48) to advance to the RSC Tourney championship game against East No. 1 seed Indiana University East.
In the Cougars semifinal win over OCU on Feb. 25, IUK set the tone of the game in the first four seconds. On the opening jump, Deja Felder grabbed the tip and fired to a wide-open Dejianna Buter, who laid the ball in for the quickest 2-0 lead of the season. Despite the lopsided end score, the Trailblazers played a competitive first half, trailing IUK 30-23 in a low-scoring first 20 minutes.
“I’m proud of the ladies and how well they played tonight,” said IUK interim head coach Carlee Cottrell. “It was an all-around effort, allowing the team to come out on top with a big win against a good team.”
The third quarter was the difference maker as the Cougars came out of the locker room red-hot with a 10-2 run in the first three minutes. Felder hit a pair of free throws, Butler got loose for three consecutive baskets and Abby Scott finished the run with two buckets and in the blink of an eye, IUK led 40-25. Whitney Williamson and Aja Ladd put the game out of reach with a second 10-2 run to give Kokomo a 46-30 lead at the 3:27-mark of the third. Mackenzie Johnson connected on an open 3-pointer and Felder scored two baskets to give the Cougars a 24-point lead (54-30) with 1:26 left in the stanza.
By the time Payton Thomson drained a triple late in the game, the lead was 30 points and the Cougar Gym crowd started to celebrate, knowing a trip to the RSC championship was quickly becoming a reality.
Shooting was the difference in the game as IUK had higher percentages in three categories. The Cougars outshot OCU in field goals (47.9 percent to 25 percent), 3-pointers (33.3 to 20.8 percent) and free throws (90.3 to 62.5 percent). In fact, IUK connected on its first 18 charity stripe attempts and hit an amazing 28 of 31 for the contest.
“I thought we played really hard and smart and as a team,” said Williamson, who led Kokomo with a double-double of 18 points and 12 rebounds while connecting on all eight free throw attempts. “We made good decisions, and even though we had a little too many turnovers (21), we pulled through and came out with a W.”
Butler hit 7 of 10 shots for 17 points, Scott dropped in 11 and Johnson had 10 points. More good news for Kokomo was the fact they won with its all-time leading scoring having an uncharacteristically off night – Felder scored just seven points on 1 of 9 shooting but did have five rebounds, five steals and five assists.
Three days earlier, the Cougars won a tough battle over Rio Grande in the RSC quarterfinals – but they had to survive a scare. Leading 53-44 after three quarters, Williamson gave Kokomo an 11-point lead in the first minute only to see the RedStorm roar back. With Butler and Williamson fouling out, Rio trimmed the lead to 60-59 with 3:28 left – leaving the Cougar Gym crowd silent and worried with two starters on the bench.
But in the span of 1:15, Scott and Ladd hit shots, and by the time Johnson drained a 3-pointer to force a Rio timeout, Kokomo fans brought the sound-level inside Cougar Gym as high as it has ever been. The Cougars closed the game on a 15-2 run to earn the win and a berth in the semifinals.
Felder scored 19 points to lead Kokomo, while Scott added 16, Johnson 15 and Butler 11.
The Cougars will travel to Richmond on Feb. 28 to battle nemesis IU East for the RSC championship game – the Red Wolves defeated Midway University 85-74 in the other semifinal contest. As the RSC regular season champs, overall tournament No. 1 seed and East top-seed, the Red Wolves were awarded one of the two RSC automatic bids into the NAIA tourney, meaning with IUK winning, it earned the second conference bid.
“IU East is a well-coached team with a lot of talent,” said Cottrell. “We are excited that we have the opportunity to play in the conference championship game. I know the ladies will come mentally and physically ready for Tuesday’s matchup.”
Game time for IU Kokomo (21-11) at NAIA DII No. 19 IU East (27-5) is set for 6 p.m. on Feb. 28. at the IUE Student Events and Activities Center (2325 Chester Blvd. in Richmond). The Cougars are 0-4 all-time against IU East; they lost 79-66 in Richmond last month.
Regardless of the RSC championship game outcome, both squads will travel to Sioux City, Iowa for the 26th Annual NAIA Division II National Championship at the Tyson Events Center – the same place the IUK women’s volleyball team played during its NAIA run last fall. The Opening Banquet is scheduled for March 7 and the Opening Ceremonies with a Parade of Champions takes place on March 8. The 32-team, single-elimination tournament starts with first round action on March 8 – the field will be announced on March 1.
IU Kokomo, which was ranked in the Top 33 for two weeks, ranks in the Top 50 in 12 NAIA Division II statistical categories, including No. 16 in defensive rebounds (33), No. 22 in scoring defense (59.9), and No. 25 in 3-point percentage (.337). Felder ranked in eight Top 50 categories, including No. 14 in steals (79) and No. 25 in assists (118).