The dream season ended Monday for the UAA women's basketball team, but not before the Seawolves reminded us what made them so special this season.
Lubbock Christian survived a late outburst of mayhem to cap an undefeated season by beating UAA 78-73 Monday in the NCAA Division II national championship game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
The Seawolves, whose commitment to a frenzied style of full-court pressure defense carried them to the best season in school history, made things exciting in the final minutes. Facing their biggest deficit of the game -- 71-57 with less than five minutes to play -- the Seawolves forced four turnovers during a 12-2 run to trim Lubbock's lead to four points with 75 seconds left.
Lubbock Christian (35-0) answered with five points in 20 seconds, with four of them coming from All-America point guard Nicole Hampton, who flirted with a quadruple double.
"The run we made at the end made it all worth it," UAA coach Ryan McCarthy said by phone. "I think that's something the ladies will always remember. We were down by (14), and their effort – I was really proud of them in that run.
"I think they had a lot of people believing in them at the end."
Thursday celebration planned for team
Huge crowds gathered to watch the game at about a dozen restaurants and bars throughout Anchorage. The Peanut Farm drew a Super Bowl-sized crowd; Piper's Lounge was packed; it was standing-room-only at Buffalo Wild Wings and there weren't many open tables at Flattop Pizza and Pool.
Fans watched a historic 38-3 season end in defeat. UAA's 38 wins were not just a school record, but a Division II record.
Tears flowed after the game, but McCarthy said the players will soon be able to relish what they did this season.
"They'll wake up probably next week and realize what kind of experience we went through here and how special it was and what kind of stage they got to play on and how many people in Anchorage came to watch them – and when they made that run, how many bar fans were going crazy," McCarthy said.
Megan Mullings, UAA's 6-foot senior post, racked up a double-double with 23 points and 12 rebounds and Jessica Madison, a 5-8 senior guard, drained four of seven shots from 3-point range for 14 points. But otherwise the Seawolves struggled offensively.
UAA was guilty of 24 turnovers against the taller Chaps, including eight in the first quarter when Lubbock Christian used a 12-0 run to build an 18-13 lead.
"That's not usually our game," UAA senior guard Jenna Buchanan said. "Usually we take care of the ball. I think just seeing a team that is so long was difficult for us and instead of attacking their length, we were hesitant to throw the ball and we just didn't make the right decisions."
Contributing to UAA's woes was a tall, long Lubbock Christian lineup that included 6-foot Kellyn Schneider (five blocks, five points, six rebounds) and 6-4 Tess Bruffey (seven points despite foul trouble) and three guards who stood 5-10, 5-10 and 5-9.
Two of those guards, 5-10 Hampton and 5-9 Kelsey Hoppel, were Seawolves slayers.
Hampton, a first-team All-America pick, filled the stat sheet with 22 point, 13 rebounds, nine assist and seven steals. Hoppel was worth 27 points, four steals and three assists.
Hampton and Hoppel are both seniors who took redshirt years last season so they could play this season – the first season Lubbock Christian was eligible for the NCAA Division II postseason after making the jump from the NAIA.
"I'm so glad we sat out, or I wouldn't be here," Hampton said at a postgame press conference. "That was a good call by Coach Gomez."
Steve Gomez, the coach of the Chaps, took Lubbock Christian to the NAIA championship game 10 years ago, when Hampton's sister was a freshman on the team.
At Monday's postgame press conference, Gomez said the Chaps held their first team meeting this season near an open tomb at a cemetery.
"We wanted to start with the end in mind, that this year is not going to define these kids," he said. "They won a national championship, but if that's the defining moment in their life it's going to be a pretty empty, frustrating life, and so we wanted to start with the end in mind."
Lubbock Christian rode a series of runs to keep UAA off track. The Chaps had runs of 6-0 and 5-0 in the second quarter en route to a 40-32 halftime lead, and after UAA closed the gap to 48-45 in the third quarter, the Chaps scored seven straight points to go up 55-45.
UAA trailed 60-50 after three quarters and 66-54 when McCarthy called a timeout with 7:22 left in the fourth quarter.
Mullings scored off a turnover to cut the lead to nine, but the Chaps came right back with a 3-pointer by Bruffey. That, coupled with a pair of Hampton free throws, gave Lubbock Christian a 71-57 lead with 4:53 left.
But over the next three-plus minutes the Seawolves played their best basketball. Keiahnna Engel drilled a 3-pointer and both she and Kiki Robertson turned steals into points to make it 71-66 with 2:29 to go.
"We had decided at the timeout that we needed to get stops," Mullings said at the postgame press conference. "And that's what we've been about all year. And so we were just focusing on doing the little things, you know, follow the game plan, play hard defense. Play crazy, out of control, and things will swing your way. And so we did."
The teams traded baskets after UAA's 9-0 run, with Adriana Dent's 3-pointer for UAA cutting the gap to 73-69 with 75 seconds left.
What came next was five straight points by the Chaps, including a runner by Hampton with 41 seconds left and two free throws by Hampton with 22 seconds left -- a trip to the foul line that came after Hampton stole the ball. That gave Lubbock Christian a 78-69 lead, rendering last-second shots by Mullings and Buchanan meaningless.
Lubbock Christian sank 19 of 26 free throws – Hampton was 9 of 10 – and shot 48.1 percent from the field.
UAA was 7 of 13 from the foul line and shot 41.4 percent from the field.
The Seawolves outrebounded the taller Chaps 47-30, with Robertson and Alysha Devine each grabbing five rebounds, but Lubbock Christian's height advantage paid off in other ways.
"It was very hard to reverse the ball with the length of their guards," McCarthy said. "Any time we would penetrate and look to kick it out, they'd get a finger on the ball or tip it so they could recover on defense.
"With their arms they're probably 8 feet when they're reaching up there by the net, and it was hard to finish against that length."
The game drew a crowd of about 3,000 to Bankers Life Fieldhouse. About 300 fans made the trip from Alaska and were joined by a couple of dozen UAA supporters who live in the Midwest. Among them was Harry Larrabee of Indiana, one of UAA's most beloved coaches and administrators. Larrabee coached the UAA men's team for several years and also stepped in to coach the women during a rough stretch in the late 1990s.
The Seawolves will stay in Indianapolis for another day. They are scheduled to return to Anchorage on Wednesday afternoon.
"We'll enjoy the moment and make sure we say hi to as many people as we can who made the long trip down here," McCarthy said.
"I'm so proud of them, each and every one of them for different reasons. They put up with me and they loved each other and they made a commitment and they were loyal to the program.
"If I can publicly say it, I want to thank them and thank their families for trusting us with them."
The game was the final college game for seven seniors – Mullings, Madison, Buchanan, Dent, Engel, Christina Davis and Dominique Brooks.
All but Engel and Brooks were members of last season's team that went 29-2, meaning five of those seniors were a combined 67-5 over two seasons.
"I would say the biggest thing I learned being a Seawolf is that it's not easy and it's not fun to get better," Mullings said. "It's really hard work. And if you can convince a group of 14 girls to all do their absolute best every single day, even though it's not easy and even though it's not fun, amazing things happen. Really amazing things happen."