SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Although the name on the front of the jersey may look the same, the California teams bidding to win the Women’s NCAA Division II National Championship on Friday are both hitting their stride with different approaches.
California (Pa.) (31-4), located 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, is a No. 1 seed, looking for their second Division II national title after winning it in 2004. Standing in their way is California Baptist, an unranked team entering the tournament, located 2,400 miles away in Riverside, California.Cal Baptist (29-6) has been the surprise of the tournament as a No. 5 seed from the West Region. The Lancers are competing in just their second season at the Division II level, and have had a relatively easy time in their march to the title game.
The Lancers have won all five games of the tournament by an average of 17.0 points per game, and they simply dismantled the No. 2 team in the nation in the national semifinal. CBU’s 85-67 victory against Limestone ended the nation’s longest win streak at 33 games, and it was never in doubt.
“Yea, we’re playing our best basketball right now. Who are we going to kid?” said CBU coach Jarrod Olson said after its decisive win. “We’re in the NCAA tournament. We’ve lost six times this year, and now we’re in the national championship.”
CBU is lead by Courtney Nelson’s 15.4 points per game, but it’s been the overwhelming dominance of Darsha Burnside that has fueled the Lancers’ attack in their past two outings. In CBU’s two victories in Sioux Falls to reach the title game, Burnside has been a beast, averaging 22.0 points and 17.0 rebounds per game in victories against New Haven and Limestone. For the season, Burnside is averaging 14.2 points and 12.8 rebounds per game.
She’s had a significant presence on the defensive end as well, registering five blocks in each of the two wins.
“She’s a really good defender around the basketball, and a good rebounder,” Olson said. "She is a really talented player and obviously we wouldn’t be doing as well without her. We have a lot of balance on the team, but she has definitely been a real big key for us in the paint.”
The Lancers have averaged 80.4 points per game during the tournament, but they’re going to have their hands full reaching that mark on Friday. Cal (Pa.) scores at a solid clip as well, averaging 72.9 points per game during the season, but it was a defensive gem that catapulted them to their semifinal win against Emporia State. Cal (Pa.) limited the Saints to just 46 points, their lowest scoring output of the season.
“We rely a lot on what we like to do,” Cal (Pa.) coach Jess Strom said. “It is tough when you don’t know a team well, so we just go back to our principles and do what we like to do, and that is defend. We just want to be us, and hopefully it works out.”
Cal (Pa.)’s lockdown on Emporia State was impressive to reach the title game. The Vulcans allowed just 15 second-half points and limited ESU to just 22 percent shooting from the floor in that time span. But as the Vulcans were making life difficult for ESU, they also had trouble finding the basket, shooting a season-low 29 percent from the field.
“I know there are times when we’re not going to shoot that great,” Strom said. “I expect spells where we don’t score, so that [29 percent] doesn’t shock me. We talked about it late in the game when we were up five. We weren’t talking offense, all we needed was stops. Once we feel like we get up, if we can get some stops, we feel like we can win games.”
Cal (Pa.) enters the final with a ton of motivation after the loss of their teammate, Shanise Clark, who died on Jan. 18 of complications from the sickle cell trait. Team members continue to chant her name after games, and Clark’s No. 44 is referenced in several places with the team.
“You can tell they are playing with a lot of passion, and a lot of inspiration,” Olson said. “Any time a team is motivated by something bigger than the game, you know you’re going to get their best. It’s going to be a tough game for us.”
CBU has four players averaging double-figure scoring, and they improved to 12-0 on the season when scoring 85 or more points. Cal (Pa.) is allowing just 60.1 points per game and have not had an 80-point performance scored against them.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the ride,” CBU’s Kamille Diaz said. “Nobody thought we were going to be here, and this hasn’t sunk in totally yet. I’m always nervous and I always have butterflies, but as soon as the game gets going, I just let [the] game come to me and play basketball. The nerves just go away.”