Bloomington, Ill. -- All-American senior forward Kathryn Berger poured in 28 points to lead No. 12 Washington University in St. Louis to an 87-77 victory against No. 7 Illinois Wesleyan in the 2011 NCAA Division III national semifinals on Friday night at the Shirk Center in Bloomington, Ill.

The Bears set up a meeting with second-ranked Amherst College in the 2011 NCAA Division III national championship game on Saturday, March 19, at 7 p.m. Washington University, who has won a Division III record five national championships including the 2010 crown, advances to the national title game for the third-consecutive season and the fourth-time over the past five years.

Washington U. and Amherst have become familiar foes during recent postseason runs, with the Bears defeating the Lord Jeffs in each of the last two years in the national semifinal round.

Illinois Wesleyan represented just the most recent top-10 foe in a difficult NCAA tournament run for the Bears. Washington University has defeated five-consecutive top-10 teams on its path to the national championship game, and the Titans were the third team the Bears had to defeat on their home court, with the Red and Green picking up wins at No. 4 Hope College and No. 1 Thomas More College in the Second and Third Rounds.

“I am very excited to get an opportunity to play here against Illinois Wesleyan with an incredible crowd,” Washington University head women’s basketball coach Nancy Fahey said. “I was telling the kids this has to be one of the most entertaining, back and forth games we have played. It was a great college women’s basketball game.”

“Not only our experience from being here last year but our experience from the first two weekends this year, being at Thomas More and at Hope with the full stadiums helped us tonight,” senior Alex Hoover said. “You are able to not let the emotion take control of you and it is a lot easier to keep your composure and not panic.”

Illinois Wesleyan twice took leads of seven points in the first half but both times the Bears had an answer and used big scoring runs to get back into the game. Illinois Wesleyan junior Olivia Lett was on fire to start the game, scoring 13 of the Titans’ first 16 points while drilling three 3-pointers to give Illinois Wesleyan a 16-9 lead fewer than 5 minutes into the action.

Berger scored five of her 11 first-half points during a 9-2 run over the next 2:47 that saw the Bears to come back and tie the game at 18-18. Later in the half the Titans broke a 27-27 tie with a 9-2 run of their own, using 3-pointers from Nikki Preston and Melissa Gardner to jump back up by seven, 36-29, with just over 5 minutes to play.

The Bears missed four shots in a row over a stretch of nearly 3 minutes as Illinois Wesleyan matched its largest lead of the game until senior Hannah Cusworth hit a lay-up to end the drought and spark what turned into a 16-6 Washington University run to end the half.

The Bears came all the way back to tie the game at 41-41 when junior point guard Bethany Morrison drew contact as she sliced through the lane for a lay-up, converting the three-point play. Washington University added free throws from junior Claire Schaeperkoetter and a reverse lay-up through traffic from Berger over the final 1:18 of the half to take a 45-42 lead into the locker room.

Illinois Wesleyan drained eight 3-pointers and shot 50 percent (8-of-16) from long range in the first half but still trailed by three at the half. The Bears continually attacked the heart of the Titan defense and stayed in the game by converting 11-of-13 free-throw opportunities. 

“Coming into the game we put an emphasis on putting the ball on the floor,” Fahey said. “ They do a lot of switching in their man defense and sometimes in their press when they extend you have an opportunity in the open court and I thought our team did a really good job of attacking.”

After scoring 13 points in the opening minutes of the game, Lett scored just one more point over the final 15 minutes of the first half. Berger’s 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting powered the Bears, while junior Brianne Monahan chipped in with eight points and Morrison added seven.

Sparked by 3-pointers from Berger on consecutive possessions, Washington University scored 10 points over a span of just 90 seconds early in the second half to build a 59-50 lead and the Red and Green opened the second half shooting 10-of-12 from the field. The high-octane offenses from both teams were firing on all cylinders as the teams traded jabs over the next few minutes of play, until the Bears went ahead 69-56.

Schaeperkoetter found Morrison for a back-door lay-up to give Washington University a 10-point lead and then Schaeperkoetter hit a 3-pointer on the next possession to put the Red and Green ahead by 13.

The Bears maintained their double-digit lead until Preston drained two 3-pointers in just 49 seconds to quickly pull the Titans back within six. Illinois Wesleyan cut the Washington University lead to just three points, 75-72, on a Hope Schulte 3-pointer with 5:37 to play. But Washington University held Illinois Wesleyan to just five points down the stretch, outscoring the Titans 12-5 to end the game and clinch its third-consecutive trip to the national championship game.

Alex Hoover (12) and sophomore forward Kristin Anda (10) also scored in double figures for Washington University, which shot 52.5 percent (31-of-29) from the field and 74.1 percent (20-of-27) from the free-throw line. Preston and Lett each scored 20 points to pace the Illinois Wesleyan offense, which finished the game draining an NCAA Division III Tournament record 15 3-pointers while shooting 50.0 percent (15-of-30) from 3-point range.

Washington University turned the ball over just eight times on Friday night after committing 25 turnovers in a 73-68 loss to the Titans in the second game of the season. Illinois Wesleyan is also the third team (Hope College, University of Chicago) the Bears have beat enduring their postseason run after suffering a loss to that team earlier in the year.

“All week in practice we have been going six on five and really focusing on taking care of the ball,” Alex Hoover said. “Illinois Wesleyan is a great pressing team so we wanted to focus on being aggressive and not worrying too much if you did have a turnover.”