March 14, 2009

Courtesy of Washington-St. Louis

Bloomington, Ill., March 14, 2009 – The No. 5 Washington University women’s basketball team withstood a second-half surge by No. 1 and previously unbeaten Illinois Wesleyan University to pick up a 58-53 win and secure its eighth trip to the NCAA Division III Final Four on Saturday, March 14, at the Shirk Center in Bloomington, Ill.

The eight trips to the Final Four tie the University of Scranton for the most ever by an NCAA Division III school. Washington U., which is making its NCAA-record 20th-consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, improves to 48-17 all-time in postseason action. The Bears were last in the Final Four in 2007, when they lost to DePauw University, 55-52, in the national championship game.

This year’s Final Four will be held from Friday-Saturday, March 20-21, at the DeVos Field House on the campus of Hope College in Holland, Mich. The Bears will face No. 11 Amherst College in the national semifinal on Friday. No. 3 George Fox University and The College of New Jersey will square off in the other national semifinal with the two winners competing for the national championship on Saturday, March 21.

Illinois Wesleyan (30-1) completed the finest season in school history, advancing to the NCAA sectional final for the first time. The Titans, who were making their sixth all-time appearance in the NCAA Tournament, were eliminated from postseason play by Washington U. for the fourth time in school history, and are 0-4 against the Bears in NCAA Tournament play.

Washington University used sharp three-point shooting and a stingy defense to take a double-digit lead into the intermission. The Bears were 4-of-7 from long-range in the first half of play and held Illinois Wesleyan, which entered the game averaging 79.5 points and a 45.4 shooting percentage to just 20 points on 25.9 percent shooting. Senior Jill Brandt and sophomore Zoë Unruh led the WU offense in the first half, scoring seven points apiece and shooting a combined 5-of-7 from the floor with three three-pointers.

It was a three-pointer from Brandt that jumpstarted a 8-0 scoring run for Washington U. that gave them command of the game early in the first half. A triple from sophomore Alex Hoover put Washington U. up by six points, and sophomore Kelsey Robb scored two possessions later to give the Red and Green a 12-4 lead.

Following Robb’s basket the Bears made just one field goal over the next 6:06 of the game, but Illinois Wesleyan never pulled closer than six points and a three-pointer from Brandt ended the Washington U. drought and put her team back in front by nine, 22-13. Neither team scored over the following two and a half minutes of play until Unruh buried a three to give the Bears their first double-digit lead of the game, and the Red and Green held the Titans at arms length over the remainder of the half to take a 31-20 lead into halftime.

Washington U. held an 18-14 advantage in rebounding through one half of play and outscored Illinois Wesleyan, 6-0, in second chance points. The Titans turned the ball over six times and shot just 2-of-9 from long range.

Illinois Wesleyan came out of the break on fire, and quickly cut into the Washington U. advantage thanks to cold shooting from the Bears and a full-court press that Washington University struggled to break for the entire second half. Junior Janice Evans made the first basket of the half to put the Bears up by 13, but WU would make just one of its next nine shots as the Titans made a run to make it a one possession game.

A jumper by Hope Schulte brought Illinois Wesleyan back within nine points, and a three from Mallory Heydorn later in the half made the score 36-31, the closest the Titans had been since there were 16 minutes remaining in the first half. A second three from Heydorn less than 30 second later made it a one-possession game with over 13 minutes to play. Heydorn finished the game with a game-high 18 points and hit four three-pointers, three coming in the second half.

Claire Sheehan made a three three minutes later to pull the Titans within one point, but they could never come all the way back to tie the game or take the lead. Hoover answered Sheehan’s basket with a running jumper in the lane and senior Halsey Ward drained a three with a little over seven and a half minutes to play to put the Bears up by six points once again. Heydorn answered with another three at the five minute mark to pull IWU within two and the hard fought game went down to the wire.

Brandt scored six points with under a minute to play to help Washington U. hold onto its lead. With WU up by just two, Brandt drove to the basket to hit a tough lay-up, and she was 4-of-4 from the line down the stretch. The Bears finished the game 16-of-19 from the line and are now 71-of-87 from the free-throw line in the postseason. The Bears are shooting a school-record 74.7 percent from the line this season.

Washington U.’s defense had a large part to do with the win, as the Red and Green held Illinois Wesleyan to a season low in points (53), field-goal percentage (30.0) and assists (six). Evans finished with a double-double, her first of the year, with 13 points and a career-high 13 rebounds. Brandt (13) and Unruh (12) also scored in double figures for the Bears. Senior Shanna-Lei Dacanay finished the game with two assists, moving past Carolyn Royce (1989-93) for third-place in school history with 317 in her career. WU improved to 7-2 this season against teams ranked in the Top-25 Poll.