UPDATE: Story now includes information on NAIA tourney draw.
BY DEAN HOCKNEY
RICHMOND, Ind. – It may not have been the ending to conference play like Indiana University Kokomo would have liked, but Cougar players could still hold their heads high as they walked off the court as River States Conference women’s basketball tournament runners-up. In a hard-fought clash against NAIA Division II No. 20 Indiana University East, No. 31-ranked IU Kokomo fell 71-59 after a furious second half rally.
In the end, the Cougars were never able to overcome a red-hot Red Wolves team out of the gate – IU East drained four 3-pointers in the first five minutes. IUE led 18-4 after an IUK timeout and seemed to be running away with the game, leading 27-14 after one stanza.
“I told them we had to have some urgency on the floor,” said IUK interim head coach Carlee Cottrell. “That has been a big word for us, coming out with energy – tonight, we came out flat. And this is a game you cannot come into like that.”
But Kokomo did not back down, and despite being outscored 16-12 in the second quarter, kept the game within range, trailing 43-26 at the break.
The Cougars got off to a much better start in the third stanza. Dejianna Butler hit a bucket, then Whitney Williamson scored the next six IUK points and the lead was trimmed to 11. Following a Red Wolves timeout, Abby Scott hit a pair of free throws and Butler scored again to cut the lead to 45-38 midway through the stanza. IU East regrouped and led 51-42 after three.
The Cougars again cut the lead to seven on baskets by Butler and Williamson, but with five minutes to go, the rally started to fade. Bailey Dreiman scored twice for IUE, followed by a Payton Thomson jumper for Kokomo – but the 60-51 score was as close as Kokomo would get in the final three minutes as the Red Wolves hit nine consecutive free throws to seal the win.
“I told them in the locker room that we cannot have the ‘woe-is-me’ attitude,” said Cottrell. “We had a good second half, and if we can put together four good quarters, we are going to be hard to play against.”
Felder led Kokomo with 19 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Williamson added 11 points, Scott chipped in nine and Butler scored seven. Kristen Miller led IU East with 22 points while Mackenzie Campbell added 17.
Despite the loss, IU Kokomo will join IU East as the RSC representatives in the 26th Annual NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship at the Tyson Events Center – the same venue 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. IU Kokomo earned a No. 8 seed in the Duer Bracket and will play No. 1-seed St. Xavier University (Illinois), which is ranked No. 3 in the final coach’s poll with a 30-2 record. The Saints defeated No. 1 University of St. Francis (Illinois) 88-64 to capture the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament championship. The winner plays the winner of No. 13 (4 seed) Friends University in Kansas and No. 19 (5 seed) Hastings College in Nebraska.
Cottrell is no stranger to the NAIA national tourney, having played in Sioux City four times while at Indiana Wesleyan University. One year ago she was a starting guard on the NAIA Sweet Sixteen Wildcats squad and as a freshman played on the 2013 NAIA DII national championship team. Since taking over IU Kokomo (21-12) in December, Cottrell has led the Cougars to 14 wins in 22 outings and the RSC West Division title.
“This was a good game for our girls as we prepare for nationals,” she said. “We are going to go out there and be the biggest underdog possible. I told them we have to go out and play and have fun because you don’t know if that will be your last game of the season.”
For the Cougars to make the national tournament is a minor miracle. The program started three seasons ago and had records of 9-21 and 10-20. Expectations were not high going into season three.
“I am proud of the girls,” said Cottrell. “I can’t take any credit – the girls come out and have fun and are playing hard. Confidence is a big thing for us right now. But more importantly, they are having fun and enjoying the season.”