March 21, 2009

HOLLAND, Mich. - By George, the Bruins did it.

George Fox (Ore.) University built a 14-point lead, then survived a furious second-half rally by Washington University of St. Louis Saturday, to win the NCAA Division III women's basketball national championship, 60-53, in the title game at Hope College's DeVos Fieldhouse.

Picked to finish fifth in the Northwest Conference in a preseason poll, the Bruins (32-0) became the sixth team in Division III women's history to go through a season undefeated, and became the first West Coast team to win the NCAA tournament since it began in 1982.

"I was really proud of our team for coming out and playing with the poise that they have all year," George Fox coach Scott Rueck said. "The lights, obviously were a little brighter today, and you couldn't tell, the way we played most of the game."

Playing with a roster that included 10 freshmen, George Fox wasn't intimidated at all by the big game setting. After the teams exchanged leads 10 times in the first 12 minutes, the Bruins reeled off 10 unanswered points, highlighted by a 3-point basket and two free throws by freshman Sage Indendi, to built a 32-23 lead. Wash U. cut the lead to six, but a 3-point basket at the buzzer by Lindsay Keener, just her second triple of the season, sent George Fox to the locker room with a 38-29 halftime lead.

The Bruins extended their lead to 49-35 on a 3-point basket by freshman Keisha Gordon with 10 minutes remaining, but the Bears, playing in their eighth national championship game and second in three years, had one final run left.

Senior forward Jaimie McFarlin scored eight of her 10 points during a 15-2 Wash U. burst that cut the George Fox lead to 51-50 with 2:19 to play.

But George Fox went back inside to Kristen Shielee, the tournament's most outstanding player, who scored back-to-back baskets to boost the lead to 55-50 with 1:05 remaining.

"I got good position, and they were perfect passes, and I just went right up with it," said Shielee, who led George Fox with 17 points and seven rebounds.

Wash U's Jill Brandt sank three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt to cut the lead to 55-53 with 25 seconds remaining. The Bears stole the ensuing inbound pass and had an opportunity to take the lead, but Halsey Ward's 3-point try rattled in-and-out of the basket.

The Bruins then sank five free throws, including two each by Indendi and Shielee, in the final 17 seconds to ice the win.

"The grit and determination they played with is what has carried us for 32 games now," Rueck said. "I thought today's game epitomized our season. I thought it was an outstanding performance by our kids, and I couldn't be prouder."

George Fox shot 41 percent (19 of 46) from the field, while limiting Wash U. to 35 percent (21 of 60). The Bruins dominated at the free-throw line, hitting 18 of 22 (82 percent) to the Bears' 7 of 9 (78 percent).

"I'm real proud of the kids coming back. Congratulations to George Fox," Wash U. coach Nancy Fahey said. "We got close, so it hurts a little more, but I'm real proud of our team."

Elise Kuenzi, who scored nine straight points during one first-half run, added 14 points for George Fox, and Indendi added 13. Janice Evans and Zoe Unruh led Wash U. with 11 points apiece.

With their four 3-pointers Saturday, the Bruins set an NCAA record for most triples for a tournament with 42, breaking the previous record of 39, set by New York University in 1997.

Named to the All-Tournament team were Shielee, Indendi, McFarlin, Evans and The College of New Jersey's Hillary Klimowicz.

Other Division III teams who won national championships with an unbeaten record were Capital (Ohio) in 1995, Wisconsin-Oshkosh in 1996, Washington University in 1999 and 2000, and Howard Payne (Texas) last year.