BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — In an absolute battle between heavyweight contenders, 11th ranked Christopher Newport (30-4) dropped the host and 7th ranked Illinois Wesleyan (27-6) 64-58. In a game between two of the best teams in the nation, it was CNU that held on with the last punch to take home third place in the NCAA National Consolation Game.
Christopher Newport improved to 30-4 on the season, marking the second consecutive 30-win season for the Captains. They become just the fifth program in NCAA Division III history to do so, joining this year’s Amherst squad (2010-11), Washington University (1999-00), Capital (1994-95) and Southern Maine (2005-06).
Also in the game, senior Chelsie Schweers became the all-time NCAA Division III leader in scoring for an NCAA tournament, scoring 174 points in six games, passing the previous mark of 162 set by Crystal Coleman (Bishop) back in the 1986 season.
The two teams were back-and-forth right from the start, with the home team taking a five-point edge early, at 15:52 left in the first half, while CNU teetered back to a 7-point lead with 37 seconds remaining before the break. The Titans added a bucket to close the gap to five at intermission, 29-24, as Schweers led the way for CNU with 15 points. On the other side, Hope Schulte had eight points and four rebounds to lead the way for Illinois Wesleyan.
It was after the break, though, that the intensity would ratchet even higher. The back-and-forth contest would swing right back to Wesleyan out of halftime, as the Titans ran off eight consecutive points in just under 2 minutes of game clock to re-take the lead with 17:08 showing. The run was keyed on a pair of 3-pointers from Nikki Preston and Olivia Lett, followed by a steal and a fast-break jumper in the lane by Lett.
Junior guard Kimmy Hopkins turned the momentum back to CNU, though, scoring five consecutive CNU points to tie the game at 36. Hopkins triggered a 3-pointer from the left wing that went down, marking just her eighth made trey this season. Schweers added a mid-range jumper to take the lead and rookie Tia Perry added a jumper in the lane to push the lead to four, 40-36.
CNU would continue the run, a 20-9 charge that gave the Captains their biggest lead of the night at 53-45, on another Kimmy Hopkins jumper. The junior guard only had two points in the first half but had nine in the second half that were key to keeping CNU in the game.
With the biggest lead of the game by either team, the Captains ran into trouble against the Illinois Wesleyan full-court press. Another big 9-0 run for the Titans had the home team back in control with a one-point lead and the momentum, 54-53 with 5:45 remaining. The Captains would fight back again, though, and Perry’s coast-to-coast lay-in closed out the run.
After the teams traded baskets, the Titans leader, Stacey Arlis, scooped in a tough layup to give the home team a three-point lead with 4:15 remaining. Junior Lauren Gural and senior Barbara Davis went 3-for-4 from the free-throw line to tie it up at 58 and the Captains defense forced an air ball on the next possession to take over possession with just over a minute remaining.
That set up what would prove to be the game-winning play with 58 seconds remaining. CNU looked to its senior leader, Schweers, to make a play. She got a screen on the left wing from Davis and when she was double-teamed, slipped a pass into Hopkins who turned and knocked down the short jumper for the lead, 60-58. Olivia Lett missed a jumper on the other end and rookie Chantal Thomas was fouled and went to the line for two. The pressure didn’t effect Thomas as she knocked down both and made it a two-possession game with 18 seconds showing on the clock. Schweers would add two more free-throws for the final, 64-58, giving her a game-high 23 points.
Thomas was the true unsung hero in the game for CNU, as the rookie point guard played a career-high 25 minutes in the final game of the season and was a lock-down defender, as well as a sure-handed guard against a tough full-court press that gave CNU trouble throughout the game. Thomas also contributed six points, four rebounds, an assist and a steal; she also added a 4-for-4 night from the free-throw line.
Schweers scored 23 points on 7-of-16 shooting, including a perfect 7-for-7 night from the charity stripe. She added four rebounds, two assists, a block and two steals. She rounds out her unprecedented career for the Captains with 2,869 career points and over 1,000 made field goals, the only guard in NCAA Division III history to accomplish that feat.
Hopkins finished with 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting for CNU, while Gural had her second straight double-figure scoring game with 10 points. Seemingly every time the Captains needed a big basket, it was Gural. Crashing the boards was Davis, hauling in a game-high 11 rebounds, while chipping in eight points and three steals.
Three players were in double figures for Illinois Wesleyan, as Olivia Lett scored 15. She was joined by Nikki Preston’s 13 and Stacey Arlis’ 12. Arlis, the nation’s leader in field-goal percentage, was just 5-for-11 from the field (.455) against the Captains.
CNU shot 42.6 percent from the field, powered by a 48 percent second half. The lead changed nine times in the game and it was tied five times.
The Captains conclude their season with a 30-4 overall record, the second best in program history after last season’s 30-1 mark.