Wisconsin-Whitewater heads to NCAA semis for second year in a row
GREENCASTLE, Ind. -- Wisconsin-Whitewater advanced to the national semifinals of the NCAA III tournament for the second year in a row with a 88-71 win against DePauw on Saturday night. In the semifinals, the Warhawks 26-4 will play the winner of Saturday's quarterfinal between Whitman 29-1 and Thomas More 31-0 on Friday evening.
Katie Burton got things going for the Warhawks with a 3 on Whitewater's first possession. Mary Merg made it 5-0 UW-W going coast-to-coast for a short-range jumper. The Warhawk defense didn't allow DePauw to score until 2 1/2 minutes into the game. The Tigers made just one of their first six shots. Whitewater took its largest lead of the half, 9-2, at the 15:44 mark as Merg's floater dropped in. DePauw came roaring back to take its first lead with 5:45 on the clock after a Lauren Abendroth 3 in transition put the Tigers up 22-21. Kristen Ruchti ended the Tiger's 7-0 run with a basket down low and Merg put the advantage back into Whitewater's favor 28-26 with 3:04 remaining, with an off-balance jumper and free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play. DePauw knotted the score at 30-30 with 1:48 left in the half, but Whitewater held the edge heading into intermission with a 34-32 lead.
Both teams made 13 field goals with Whitewater shooting 44.8 percent and DePauw 41.9 percent in the first period. The miniscule point margin was made at the free-throw line where UW-W was 7-for-7 compared to the Tigers' 4-for-5. Merg led all players in the half with 15 points on 4-for-6 shooting from the floor and all seven of the Warhawks' free throws. Ruchti added 12 points on 6-for-9 from the field and added five boards. Alex Gasaway led DePauw with 10 points in the first 20 minutes.
Same teams, different game in the second half. Leading 36-34 at 19:01, Whitewater went on a 12-0 run, fueled by a pair of baskets and a free throw from Ruchti, to up the advantage to 48-34 at the 16:40 mark. And that was it. The Warhawk lead never dipped below double figures the rest of the way. DePauw was within 10, 57-47 at 12:02, but the Warhawks scored the next five points. It was 62-52 with 9:55 left, but Kaitlyn Thill followed that with a 3-pointer at 9:40 for UW-W. And with 7:48 remaining UW-W's lead was 65-55, but Merg hit a 3 13 seconds later. Whitewater's lead reached 17 points twice in the final moments, 86-69 on a pair of free throws by Andrea Olsen with 0:51 on the clock, and the final margin after two Thill free throws.
UW-W made 23 of 25 free throws, 16 of 18 in the second half. DePauw was 9-for-13. The Warhawks also had an edge from beyond the arc, going 7-for-16 to 2 of 11 for the Tigers, and Whitewater shot better from the floor, connecting on 49 percent to 41 percent.
Ruchti, a senior center, took game scoring honors with 24 points. Merg, the senior guard, added 21 points, hitting 10 of 11 free throws. Ruchti and Merg shared team honors with nine rebounds, and Merg led both teams with six assists, along with her senior running mate at guard, Thill. Senior forward Alex Gasaway topped DePauw with 20 points, with junior guard Savannah Trees contributing 18. Gasaway also grabbed nine rebounds, trailing teammate Alison Stephens' game-high 11. Senior guard Ali Ross dished out four assists for the Tigers.
Saturday's quarterfinal was a rematch of last year's NCAA III championship game in Holland, Michigan, won by DePauw 69-51.
DePauw ends the season 30-2. The loss broke a 36 game home court winning streak for the Tigers, and it was just the ninth home court loss in the history of the facility (versus 167 wins).
Whitewater will be making its fourth final four appearance. The Warhawks placed third in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) Division III tournament, the precursor to the NCAA, in 1982. UW-W finished third in 2008 when the finals were in Holland, Michigan and, as mentioned, second in Holland last year.