The Northwestern women’s basketball team repeated as national champions on March 15 by defeating Davenport (Mich.) 88-83 in Sioux City. It was the third time the Raiders were crowned champions in four years.
Following an official announcement on Tuesday, it became known that the win would be head coach Earl Woudstra’s final game for the Raiders. Woudstra stepped down after 17 seasons with the program, handing the reins over to assistant Chris Yaw.
The championship game was essentially a home game for the Raiders, with the majority of the Tyson Events Center being filled with fans donning red to support the No. 2-ranked team in the nation. As if the opponents, No. 1 and unbeaten Davenport, didn’t provide a stiff enough challenge, the Raiders had to go into the game without two starters.
Sophomores Kendra De Jong and Mel Babcock both suffered foot injuries in the semi final game against Morningside, sidelining them for the final contest. The loss of the both women required the rest of the Raiders to fill the void, especially in the rebounding category. NW also had to prove that they could avenge the loss to Davenport over Christmas break, the only blemish on the women’s record.
Coming into the season with the pressure of repeating, the women tried to maintain a focused attitude on the job at hand. “We acknowledged that there would be pressure, but it was about who we are as a team.” Senior Kristin Neth said. Senior Allison Hulst added that, “it was always about us getting better.” That focus was harped on by Woudstra and the coaching staff, “We continually reminded them that what has happened in the past has very little to do with what you are expected to do today. “
Even though the team tried to maintain that focus and positive attitude, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any low points. All three seniors agreed that the part of the season right after the loss to Davenport to the first few games after break was a difficult portion of the season. The women made the choice to persevere and learn from the loss. Neth stated, “I think we learned the importance that everyone is a part of the body of the team.” The big game atmosphere also trained the squad for the high-intensity contests at the national level.
NW got their chance to show if they had learned from the loss when they took on Davenport again in the finals. Strategically, some adjustments had to be made to make up for the loss of Babcock and De Jong. Senior Becca Hurley said, “The loss of Mel and Kendra was just a reminder that all five players had to board, especially with [Davenport’s] height.” Hulst talked about the change in philosophy in dealing with ball screens. We were told to make them beat us from the outside, so we went underneath high ball screens instead of pressuring up top. It was weird to give them so much space.”
The Raiders also chose to not apply full-court pressure, instead opting for a more disciplined zone defense.
The game was truly a matchup between the two most talented teams in the country, with 15 ties and 19 lead changes throughout. It took a while for the butterflies to settle for both teams, taking over two minutes for the first bucket to be scored. Neither team gained an advantage over five points in the first half.
Davenport took the advantage throughout the half, but junior Kami Kuhlmann answered a Panther trey with a last second bucket to keep the Raiders within striking distance, down 43-40 as the halftime buzzer sounded.
Coming out of the locker room, the Raiders chipped away until they finally retook the lead four minutes into the half 50-48 on freshman Mackenzie Small’s steal and score. The Panthers battled back to take the largest lead any team had in the game, 69-61, knocking NW on its heels.
The women responded with a run of their own to bring the game back to a tie.
With the game locked at 69, Davenport took a timeout. The Red Sea brought the crowd to their feet, creating an energy that would not waver until the game was clinched.
Following the timeout, Davenport scored to end their draught, but the teams traded buckets and leads, no squad possessing more than a two point advantage until 41 seconds were left in the game.
Hurley sunk 7-8 free throws in the double bonus to clinch the championship.
Hurley had 32 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in her MVP performance. Kuhlmann played all but one minute of the contest, netting herself 21 points and seven rebounds.
Senior Allison Hulst closed out her career with 17 points and eight boards after getting the starting nod and playing 39 minutes. Small received a standing ovation for tying her career high of 10 points before fouling out with just a few seconds left.
Looking back on the game and the season as a whole, the three seniors on the squad, Hurley, Hulst and Kristin Neth, cherished the journey they had completed to win the third national title of their careers.
The game was truly one to remember, and when Hurley, Hulst, Neth and Woudstra were asked about the one moment they would take away from this year’s final, all four pointed to the timeout with the game tied at 69-69. Hulst recalled, “Coach was trying to talk to us, but it got so loud we couldn’t hear him, and he just smiled. I’ll remember that smile.”
A lasting legacy
Woudstra built NW into a dynasty in the NAIA Division II ranks.
After taking the helm in 1994, he led them to 10 national tournaments, where they reached the final four in 2006 and 2009, were runner-ups in 2000, and brought home championship banners in 2001, 2008, 2010 and 2011.
Woudstra also was recognized as Coach of the Year for every year that involved a championship run. In his 17 seasons as head coach, the Lady Raiders amassed an impressive 403-139 record.
“It’s been a real joy to be involved with the young women in this program,” said Woudstra. “My family and I have had so many wonderful experiences with Northwestern basketball over the years, and I’m extremely grateful for the support I’ve received from people on campus and in the community.
“I’ve thought about retiring from coaching for the last couple of years, and it seems the timing for that is perfect now. The basketball program is at a really healthy place. I’ve definitely been blessed with the opportunity to work with Coach Yaw for the last seven years, and it’s really exciting to pass the baton and know I’m putting the program in good hands. In addition, with the development of our new sport management program, it’s time for me to go back to a larger role in the kinesiology department,” he said.
Athletic Director Barry Brandt had high praise for Woudstra as a man and a coach.
Brandt pointed out Woudstra’s servant leadership and passion, saying, “He’s always been far more concerned about the personal development of his players and coaches than he has about himself or the sport of basketball. His Christian faith was at the core of everything he did; nothing was more important than seeing spiritual growth and understanding take place in his squads . . . He earned the players’ trust.”
Yaw’s role as an assistant consisted for the last seven years was defense and encouragment, often being seen calling out a press or spurring the women on from his seat next to Woudstra.
Yaw was excited to begin, saying, “The most exciting thing about becoming the new head coach is to take on the tradition that has consistently pursued excellence but taken a great humble approach as well. My greatest goal for the program is that it continues to model and uphold the mission of Northwestern, creating women of great character who would be courageous and intentional about being women of faith.”