HOLLAND, Mich. – Melissa Gardner had missed 12 of her previous 14 3-point shots.
“That’s awful,” the Illinois Wesleyan guard said.
She hadn’t scored in more than eight minutes.
“I didn’t feel like I was contributing to my team like I should be,” Gardner said.
But there she was, holding the ball just left of the key, just beyond the arc and the game tied at 48 with just more than a minute left in the national-title game.
The 5-foot-6 junior from tiny Chebanese, Ill., stepped back, launched and found nothing but net and a game that was looking for that one defining moment finally had it. It gave Illinois Wesleyan not only a lead it would never lose, but the elusive NCAA championship.
“I wouldn’t call it a game-winner,” said Gardner, who finished with eight points.
Maybe not to her, because the final score was 57-48, and IWU senior guard Olivia Lett hit both ends of three one-and-ones before it ended. But it was the exclamation point on a game that saw previously unbeaten George Fox lose its most dominant player just 7:40 into the game, and saw both teams shoot a paltry 32 percent en route to the lowest scoring two-team total in a national title game since 1984.
But while Lett was the deserving tournament MVP after scoring 24 in a semifinal win Friday against St. Thomas and another 22 Saturday against the 3rd-ranked Bruins, Gardner was huge in the first two-thirds of her team’s NCAA run, in which she hit 17 of 31 3-pointers in four games But against St. Thomas she was 1 of 9 beyond the arc and her struggles continued Saturday. She was 1 for 5 when the ball came to her at the penultimate moment.
“My teammates always give me the most confidence when I’m not shooting well. ‘Shoot the ball, Mel, shot the ball, because they’re going to go in.’ And at that point it was late in the game, I was wide open and I knew I had to shoot it.”
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“Mel’s 3-pointer was unbelievably huge,” Lett said.
For a while it seemed as if it would never come to that. George Fox’s 6-5 junior center Hannah Munger, who had a 36-point, 13-rebound performance in a victory against a previously unbeaten and defending-champion Amherst, got tangled up with Lett while going for an offensive rebound and her team leading 11-7.
“It happened fast,” said Lett, who landed backward on Munger as they fell together. “It was a physical game in general. I was just going up for a rebound we got tangled up and I landed on her. It was a freak play, a hustle play. Obviously we feel terrible that it happened but there wasn’t anything that could have happened differently.”
“I went for a rebound and just stepped the wrong way and the girl fell on me and it didn’t feel so good,” said Munger, who finished with two points, four rebounds and two blocks.
She was carried off the court. The preliminary diagnosis was at the least stretched ligaments, but she came to the postgame news conference in a wheelchair. Her right knee was heavily taped when she limped back to the bench just a minute before the end of halftime.
“I was cleared to play if I wanted to. To be honest, the coaches had made the decision to not let me play and I think that was the right decision. I felt like I could not play a hundred percent and that would have been selfish of me to want to go in when I had hundred-percent confidence on every girl on the team that would do fine and I think they did.”
“We had talked before the ballgame started that Hannah Munger wasn’t their whole team, that they were a very talented team all the way through,” Smith insisted. “And I think George Fox proved that tonight. She’s a very talented player and we’re so sorry that she didn’t get to compete in this game fully, but they are blessed with a very talented team and they’re well coached. So we knew when she was not in the ballgame it was still going to be very competitive.”
To say the least. Understand that last year, Illinois Wesleyan made a huge comeback to oust George Fox in the national quarterfinals but then lost twice on its home court in Bloomington, Ill.
Saturday at Hope College, George Fox ran out to an 11-2 lead. After Munger went out, its offense went flat. The Bruins led 21-14 with 7:55 to halftime but didn’t score another field goal until Arianna Mohsenian hit a 3 1:48 into the second half. IWU appeared in control and took its biggest second-half lead 41-34 on a two free throws by Lett with 9:19 remaining.
But then Keisha Gordon woke up for George Fox. The senior All-American scored nine of her 17 points in the next four minutes as the Bruins not only took the lead, but went up six on her three-point play with 5:04 left.
That woke up Lett, who hit back-to-back baskets and then a free throw before teammate Karen Solari tied it at 48 with two free throws with 2:20 left.
That set up Gardner’s big shot. Lett swished all six of the free throws she took in the final 38 seconds, making 11 of 12 for the game. A team that started out 3-4 ended on a 14-game winning streak to finish 29-5.
“I don’t think it’s fully set in yet,” Lett said. “Unbelievable. You couldn’t ask for a better way to finish out your career, to finish out your senior year.”
All eight Titans who played scored and all eight grabbed at least one rebound, led by Brittany Hassebring, a 5-7 senior who led with a game-high eight.
“There was never a moment in that ballgame where I didn’t feel we wouldn’t be the national champion when the buzzer went off,” Smith said. “Even when we were down 4, 5 with like a minute-47 left on the clock. There was not a drop of fear on the bench. And that is how it has been all season long. It was just reminiscent of every time we stepped on the floor.”
Especially not with the game on the line and ball in Gardner’s hands.
“That game was amazing. I don’t even have words,” Gardner said. “Amazing. Unbelievable.
“It’s nice to know the hard work finally pays off and you couldn’t share it with a better group of people that we have an Illinois Wesleyan.”