There was a lot riding on the game and it took nearly the full 40 minutes to determine a winner. After seven ties and 14 lead changes, it was NAIA Division II 16th-ranked Huntington University who earned the hard-fought 65-60 victory over 25th-ranked Taylor University to claim the program’s first Mid-Central Conference Tournament title in 15 years.
The Foresters trailed most of the second half, but finally took the lead for good on a 3-pointer from Jenna Donaldson that put them up 49-47 with 8:30 to play. Donaldson’s trey also ignited a 9-1 run to give HU its largest lead of the game at 55-48 at the 4:11 mark. Taylor battled back within one at 57-56 with two minutes to go, but Courtney Beerbower banked in a five-footer over Trojan center Bethany Ballard to give the Foresters a 59-56 lead. Taylor turned the ball over on its next possession and Lauren Davenport knocked down a jumper from the right corner to make it 61-56 with 1:09 on the clock.
Ballard scored on a driving layup for the Trojans and then Taylor fouled Donaldson with 44.5 ticks left. Donaldson calmly drained both charity tosses to extend HU’s lead back to five. Following a timeout, the Trojans got the ball back in Ballard’s hands and she drew the foul on a drive to the hoop. She knocked down both free throws to pull Taylor within three at 63-60 with 37.8 seconds to go. The Foresters inbounded the ball and kept it in the backcourt to try to use as much clock as possible. With 10 seconds on the shot clock, Donaldson began to bring the ball across halfcourt and was fouled on the drive with 10.9 seconds left. Following a Trojan timeout, Donaldson again found the bottom of the net on both attempts. Taylor’s Paige Rudolph took a desperation three at the other end and Beerbower grabbed the rebound and dribbled out the clock for the win.
The first half was a defensive battle as both teams tried to overcome nerves. The Foresters took the early 5-0 lead, but Taylor went on top at 8-7 and the seesaw affair commenced. Following three ties and seven lead changes, the score stood at 16-16 with 4:35 to go in the half. The Trojans then strung together seven consecutive points forcing HU to call a timeout at the 2:15 mark. Ryleigh Carr ended Taylor’s streak with a nice turnaround jumper in the paint and Davenport stole a lazy Trojan pass and converted a layup to cut the deficit to three. The Forester got another defensive stop and Carr was fouled as she drove to the hole. She sank both free throws to pull HU within 23-22, but Ballard got loose underneath for a layup for the Trojans at the other end. The Foresters got the ball back with 27 seconds left and played for the final shot. HU worked the ball around and Carr threw a skip pass to Sarah Miller who drilled the longball to knot the score at 25-25 at the break.
Donaldson topped all scorers in the game with 21 points for the Foresters, 19 of which came in the second half. Miller and Beerbower both chipped in 12 points. Davenport, HU’s lone senior playing at the Merillat Complex for the final time, scored eight points, dished out six assists and had four steals. Ballard paced the Trojans with 19 points. Nellie Eskew finished with 14 and Allison Reece had 12.
With the win, the Foresters earned an automatic berth in the NAIA National Tournament which will be held in Sioux City, Iowa March 11-17. The pairings for the 32-team tournament will be released on Wednesday evening, March 4.