By Zach James Assistant Sports Editor
The Clinton Herald
---- — 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.
“That’s a great stat, and that makes me happier yet,” Kruger said. “We’ve had games where we haven’t taken good care of the ball, but I thought the key was how we defended; we had very few busts. They had to really work for the baskets they got.”
To start the second half, Ashford opened with a 12-3 run, adding to what became the game’s largest margin of 18 points at the 14:45 mark.
During that run, Wagner made a big hustle play on defense that included her diving into the scorer’s table near midcourt and ended with an and-one opportunity for Sarah Vozel.
“That was huge for us,” Wagner said. “Honestly, I caught on to what (Northwest)’s offense was doing the whole game, so I grabbed the ball and threw it to the closest white jersey.”
Vozel did not make the layup, but thanked her guard later by passing the ball to Wagner for a 3-pointer.
The closest the RedHawks came to the Saints was eight points twice, both coming with less than five minutes remaining.
Kruger reminded his team even four weeks ago that these two weekend games were important, and the girls received the message loud and clear.
“Deep down we knew we could get to nationals, and coach told us to walk the walk instead of talk the talk and we did tonight,” Wagner said. “It’s an awesome feeling right now.”
Wagner led the Saints with 22 points, half of which came from the free-throw line. Wagner was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player following the game. Junior Quinn Rear was named to the all-tournament team. Rear scored 12 points and had five rebounds in Saturday’s win.
As a team, the Saints shot 17-of -from the free-throw line, while the Redhawks were 8-for-11.
The Saints advance to the 2014 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship in Sioux City at the Tyson Events Center that starts March 12. Kruger said it was a huge step for the program.
“They want to get over the hump,” Kruger said. “There hasn’t been a winning tradition here, so this is a step in the right direction, and I hope this is a signal that this program can turn the right way; the players certainly got it done this weekend.”
Pairings for the national tournament will be released later this week.
ASHFORD 67, INDIANA UNIVERSITY NORTHWEST 57
IU-NORTHWEST (22-9) — Megan Hollan 7 2-2 16, Danielle Zandstra 2 0-0 4, Rebecca Theriault 0 1-2 1, Bernadett Grabowski 1 1-1 3, Nicki Monahan 6 4-6 17, Brianne Wischman 4 0-0 12, Brooke Gardener 0 0-0 0, Valerie Zulevic 2 0-0 4. Totals 22 8-11 57.
ASHFORD (12-20) — Elizabeth Nardi 0 0-0 0, Janell Anthony 3 2-2 8, Sarah Vozel 2 3-4 7, Jess Mlachnik 5 1-4 11, Madison Wagner 5 11-12 22, Bri Guthrie 2 0-0 5, Courtney Panus 1 0-0 2, Quinn Rear 4 0-0 12. Totals 22 17-22 67.
Halftime: Ashford 33, Northwest 24. 3-point goals — IU-Northwest 5 (Wischman 4, Monahan); Ashford 6 (Rear 4, Guthrie, Wagner). Total fouls — IU-Northwest 19, Ashford 11. Fouled out — None.