The DePauw women left Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference play with a smile and broke the hearts of the Hendrix Warriors on Sunday.
The Tigers (25-3) claimed their second straight SCAC women’s title and fifth in the last six years with an 80-71 victory over Hendrix in the championship game at The Hangar Dome in Jackson, Miss.
It will be the Tigers’ last. The team from Greencastle, Ind., is leaving the league after this year to play in a conference in its geographic region.
"We love this conference and are sad to go but are happy to be going out with a championship," said DePauw coach Kris Huffman.
But not without a fight from the Hendrix women, who finished 17-11, reached their first SCAC title game and became the first opponent to lose under double-digits to the Tigers this year after Christina Byler, one of the Warriors’ all-time great players who was playing her final game, hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds to help cut an 18-point lead in half with a final flurry.
"A lot of the games that DePauw had this year, when they got up on another team, that team rollede over; that’s something we didn’t do today," said Hendrix first-year coach Emily Cummins. "I don’t think DePauw saw a nine-point game coming.
"Every timeout I kept yelling to our players to fight, fight. When I did that earlier in the season, our team just looked at me. Now, they looked toward me. They were telling me they would fight for me."
The Warriors led 23-19 with 6:05 left in the first half before DePauw closed the period with a 16-6 run to take the lead for good.
Huffman’s DePauw teams are 354-16 when leading at halftime.
"As the half closed, we were executing well and playing well then we starting taking a step back, then another step back," Cummins said. "I knew if we didn’t get a couple of baskets to start the half and they got off well, it would be tough."
"Hendrix can score inside-outside, they can defend and they rebound the crap out of the ball," said Huffman, whose Tigers had a 45-32 rebounding edge. "Sometimes, you have to be confidence and relax and play. We have the depth. It’s just a matter to find the girls to get us going."
Providing the spark off the bench were Alex Gasaway (7 of 12 from the field) and Ali Ross, who had 11 points.
The Tigers upped the lead to nine at the beginning of the second half, then Ross scored a rebound basket that she turned into a three-point play, hit two free throws and hit a 3-pointer from the perimeter for nine straight points to help expand the Tiger lead to 59-43 inside eight minutes.
The Warrios drew within 63-51 at the 5:25 mark before Kate Walker applied a clinching blow with a 3-pointer to help the Tigers well the lead to 18 again. The Warriors still had plenty of fight and used some defensive pressure to ouscore DePauw, 18-7 in the final 2:30.
"DePauw is just well-rounded, very fundamental and very well-coached," said Cummins.
Byler finished her collegiate career with 15 points and five rebounds and made the all-tournament team. Jamie Tate gave the Tigers problems inside early and added 10 points and 11 rebounds. Jordan Henderson and Katy Ashley-Pauley had seven points each.
Katie Mathews, the MVP of the tournament, led DePauw with 14 points on 7 of 12 shooting. Walker added 13 pooints and 10 rebounds. Gasaway had 14 points and eight rebounds and Ross had 11 points, all in the second half.
"The girls really like each other and we have great team chemistry," Huffman said. "We just need to find the right combination to get us going.
"It’s great to go out on top but we really like this league and I like my coaching colleagues. We’ll miss all the friends we made along the way."