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Messiah Beats Oglethorpe To Head To National Championship
Sal Shani was key off the bench in Messiah's win over Oglethorpe.

Holland, MI – For the second time in school history, the Messiah College women’s basketball team will play for a national championship.

Messiah (30-2) knocked off Oglethorpe University (27-6) by an 80-60 score in the first of two 2008 NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Championship Semi-Finals Friday night at Hope College, moving on to face Howard Payne University (32-0) in Saturday’s national championship game.

Howard Payne – ranked second in the country in both the final USA Today/ESPN Top 25 Coaches Poll and the D3hoops.com ballot – defeated #9/#8 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater by a 69-59 difference in Friday’s second semi-final.

For Messiah (ranked #5/#4), it was a crucial 15 to nothing first-half run that dictated the squad’s 17th straight victory, as the Falcons turned a 10-9 Oglethorpe lead into a 24-10 advantage over the span of just two and a half minutes at Hope’s stunning DeVos Fieldhouse.

It was a push that would all but suck the life out of the Stormy Petrels, as #24 Oglethorpe would close the gap to 14 points just once in the second half.
 
“We are thrilled with how we played,” said Mike Miller, Messiah head coach. “We can play just about any style, and it showed tonight.”

Miller’s team needed to match pace with Oglethorpe (Atlanta, Ga.), as the quick-but-undersized Stormy Petrels shot out to an early, 4-0 lead behind a pair of transition layups. A driving layup from senior Nikki Lobach got the Falcons on the board, while a leak-out layup from senior Gwen Avery knotted things up at 4-4 just two minutes into play.

A jumper and three pointer from classmate Lauren Schurr gave Messiah a brief 9-7 lead at the first half’s 15:44 mark, but a long ball from Oglethorpe’s Brittany Corbett gave the designated home team a 10-9 lead with 15:33 to play.

It was at that moment that Miller’s team figured things out on both ends of the floor.

Another triple from Schurr ignited the team’s aforementioned 15-0 run, as the Falcons began to get back defensively and make things extremely tough on Oglethorpe. Back-to-back layups from Lobach and junior Sal Shani made it a 16-10 game, while consecutive threes from senior Amy Reed and junior Katie Kalb completed the run at the 13:03 mark.

The Falcons forced Oglethorpe into three consecutive misses and two turnovers during the stretch, fully grasping the pace at which the team needed to defend, according to Miller.

Playing just one true post player significant minutes – 5-10 Biz Richmann is the team’s tallest regular – Oglethorpe attempted to utilize a fast-break attack to beat Messiah’s defense down the floor. Coming into the game, Oglethorpe was averaging 79.3 points per game, the fifth-highest average in the nation.

“We’ve worked on trying to stop their transition break for the last two days, but it took us four or five minutes to get a better feel,” Miller said. “Once we saw it a couple times, our instincts took over. We had sold out that we were going to get back. We had guards guarding forwards, forwards guarding guards, it didn’t matter. We had a few players that needed a few trips to get their heads turned (to find the ball in transition), but we figured it out.”

With Oglethorpe’s transition game under control, it was Miller’s team that served the Stormy Petrels a dose of their own medicine. A pair of fastbreak layups from Kalb gave Messiah a 40-20 lead with 5:37 to play in the first half, while a mid-range jumper from Shani gave the Falcons a 51-33 lead at the break.

The teams traded points for much of the second period, with a brief four-to-nothing Oglethorpe push making the score 67-53, Messiah, with 6:35 to play.

Miller’s team then got a timely jump shot from sophomore Julie Henninger, while Kalb answered with a pull-up jumper in transition following a steal on the defensive end. Following a made free throw from Oglethorpe, Reed buried a jumper. Kalb followed with another long ball, and Messiah led 75-54 with 3:42 to play.

Miller then emptied his bench, as Friday’s first semi-final game had lost doubt.

“We could never recover from their (first-half run),” said Ron Sattele, Oglethorpe head coach. “They decided to play better defense, and we did not. If we don’t play good defense and block out, we’re in real trouble with our size.

“Messiah is a very tough team mentally, and we weren’t mentally ready to play,” he continued. “That’s my fault as a coach. For some reason I missed the boat tonight.”

Messiah placed at least five players in double-figure scoring for just the third time this season, as Shani led the way with 16 points on a six of 10 shooting performance. Schurr knocked in 14 points behind a four of nine effort from three-point land, while Kalb equaled a career-high with 12 points on a perfect five for five shooting effort.

Lobach scored 11 points while Reed added 10. The squad equaled a season-best 21 assists in the win, while the break-neck pace of the game allowed for a season-high 69 shot attempts for Messiah.

Miller’s team was able to cruise to the win despite committing a season-high 24 fouls while allowing Oglethorpe to shoot 31 free throws, a season-high mark for a Falcons’ opponent. The Stormy Petrels made 19 of those charity tosses, also a season-high allowance from Messiah. Conversely, Miller’s team went to the line a season-low nine times, making seven.

Still, those numbers weren’t enough to make things close, as Messiah held Oglethorpe nearly 20 points under its season average, giving up just seven second-half field goals in an eventual 34.9 percent defensive field-goal percentage (18 of 52 overall).

“When people try to take something away from us, we’ve got players that can make shots,” Miller said. “We’re awfully deep. Sometimes I don’t know where it will come from, but we always seem to find ways to get it done.”

A winter storm warning didn’t keep fans from attending the contest in reasonable numbers, as 2,367 was announced as the paid attendance in the 3,400-seat DeVos Fieldhouse. As nearly 10 inches of snow fell and blew within the hours leading up to game time, most Holland-area entities closed due to deteriorating road conditions.

The Falcons will now face Howard Payne (Brownwood, Tex.) in Saturday’s national championship, as the Yellow Jackets rode 21 points from senior guard Meia Daniels in the team’s 69-59 win over Wisconsin-Whitewater. Daniels was named the Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association Division III Player of the Year Thursday, while Howard Payne entered this season’s national tournament as one of just three unbeaten teams.

Saturday’s national title game appearance will be the second in the history of the Messiah women’s basketball program. The team lost to Washington University in St. Louis by a 67-45 score in the 2000-2001 national championship.

“Howard Payne is a very, very good team, as their undefeated record would indicate,” Miller said. “We’ll work as hard as possible to prepare and then give it our best shot.”

The national championship game is set to tip off at 6:05 p.m. EST in Hope’s DeVos Fieldhouse, and will be broadcast live on CSTV (College Sports Television). Check your local cable or satellite provider for details.

WVMM Messiah College radio will also broadcast the championship game both on the air (90.7 FM) and over the world wide web. For those interested in keeping track of real-time stats, a live stats feed will be available by clicking here. To view the official site of the NCAA Division III Final Four, click here.