March Madness, probably; Red Raider magic, could be; spot in the semifinals…definitely; Darbi Gustafson converted a jumper in the lane with virtually no time remaining to give top-seed Northwestern an improbable 71-70 win over No.2 College of the Ozarks (Mo.) and the final spot in the national semifinals.
The Red Raiders, now 29-4 on the season, will face GPAC-rival and No.1 overall seed Concordia in Monday’s (March 11) first semifinal game beginning at 6:05pm. Northwestern improved to 10-2 in the quarterfinals and will be making its 10th trip to the semifinals. The Red Raiders are now 55-11 all-time at the championship.
Down by as many as 17 with 4:40 left in the third quarter after a three-point play by Bobcats’ All-American guard Cassidy Johnson, Northwestern’s fate and a spot in the semifinals looked very much in question. The Red Raiders, evidently, had no doubts as Kassidy De Jong knocked down a three-pointer and began a 10-2 run over a two minute span to get her team within striking distance. Both teams hit three-pointers during the final 30 seconds, one by Taylor VanderVelde of Northwestern and the other by Johnson of Ozarks, to make the score 61-50 going into the fourth quarter.
A basket by Ozarks other All-American, Kelsie Cleeton, put the Bobcats up 13 (63-50) at the onset of the fourth quarter. Northwestern responded with an 11-0 run, beginning with a jumper by Sammy Blum and ending with a drive by De Jong, that put the Red Raiders within two (63-61) at the five-minute mark.
The teams traded baskets over the next couple of minutes until, with the Bobcats up three, a jumper by De Jong followed by two free throws from Blum gave Northwestern its first lead since the second quarter, 67-66, with 1:47 left to play. Cleeton would give Ozarks back the lead on a drive, only to have De Jong respond right back, scoring with a reverse lay-up to give the Red Raiders the lead back, 69-68, now with 20 seconds remaining.
A Northwestern foul put Aleksei Smith at the free throw line, where she made two free throws and giving Ozarks their final lead, 70-69, with 10 seconds left. Following a timeout, Northwestern got the ball to De Jong, who had it stripped away and go out of bounds off Ozarks with 1.2 second remaining. After a lengthy review and confirmation by the officials giving the ball to Northwestern under its own basket, Blum threw a perfect lob to Gustafson, who caught it high and dropped in the game-winner, setting off a wild celebration among Red Raider teammates, coaches and fans.
De Jong led all players with 26 points, making 10-of-15 field goal attempts, 3-of-6 from the arc. Gustafson contributed 11 points and seven rebounds while both Haley Birks and VanderVelde scored 10. The Red Raiders had a decisive advantage on the glass, 50-28, but committed 22 turnovers compared to five by the Bobcats.
Northwestern shot 48% for the game, 52% in the second half and 50% (5/10) from three-point range.
College of Ozarks shot 36% and was led by Cleeton with 21 points; Smith scored 17 and Johnson added 16 points and six assists. The Bobcats end the season at 31-4.