CLINTON — Despite winning 12 games this season, the Ashford Saints have punched their ticket to the NAIA Division II national tournament.
Ashford defeated Indiana-Northwest 67-57 on Saturday afternoon in the Association of Independent Institutions conference tournament championship game, which was hosted by Ashford.
Take out Northwest’s first basket five minutes into the contest, and the Saints held serve throughout the entire night.
“Doggone it, it’s kind of been a challenging year; it’s been one of those where we kept hanging in there and we were slowly getting better,” Ashford coach Kelly Kruger said. “This group really bought in, and they reaped the benefits of buying in.”
Northwest came in with the league’s Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year, but that didn’t intimidate the Saints.
“We knew right away if we got them down, they would get down on themselves,” said Jess Mlachnik, who scored 11 points in the victory. “We didn’t let the emotions get to us as we did last time.
“This is an intense rivalry,” Saints guard Madison Wagner said. “We wanted to prove that we wanted to win as badly as they did.”
Patience was a big factor in how the Saints dictated play in the opening minutes as they held the Redhawks to four points in the first six minutes.
“We just wouldn’t let them get out and do the things they wanted to do,” Kruger said. “They have more firepower, and we showed great patience with what we did. We should have played at this pace all yearlong.”
This was the same team that scored 95 points the night before in the semifinal round.
Ashford’s biggest lead in the first half was 10 just before halftime, and one of the biggest reasons for that was making just three turnovers in the half.