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Champs (again)

ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University women’s basketball team put an “exclamation point” on the most successful season in school history.

This year’s Raiders did what it couldn’t do the previous two years — defeat traditional rival Oregon Tech in the Cascade Collegiate Conference tournament.

Southern Oregon received outstanding performances from its big three — Ashley Claussen, Carly Meister and Autumn Durand — in taking down the Owls, 85-63, in the title game Monday at Ashland High’s Mountain Avenue Gym.

The fifth-ranked Raiders (29-1), the conference regular season and tournament champion for the first time since 2008, will advance to the NAIA 32-team national tournament for the second consecutive year and ninth time in school history. The event will be held March 9-15 at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

Oregon Tech (25-9) will make it to nationals for the third straight year. The Owls have yet to win a tournament game in what will be their fourth appearance.

First-year Raiders coach Alex Carlson, a former OIT basketball standout, brought a fresh style to Southern Oregon after coaching at University of Alaska-Anchorage the previous two years. Carlson stresses a fast-tempo offense predicated by constant defensive pressure.

“My approach was to have the girls buy into my system,” said Carlson, 32. “We came in with a lot of energy. From day one, I knew this was a group who wanted to be successful. There was a great core.”

Claussen, a four-year starter, says Carlson tweaked the Raiders' pressing defense for the third meeting against the Owls this season.

“We started out in a brand new press to throw them off,” said Carlson “We’re such a high-paced team we wanted to speed them up.”

The plan worked as Southern Oregon forced three turnovers on the first three possessions by the Owls (25-9) and took a 7-0 lead in a game it never trailed.

Claussen scored 12 of her 18 points in the first half and was active on the defensive end with three steals.

The Raiders held as much as a 13-point lead in the second quarter, but the Owls closed the half on a 9-2 run to trail by just five points at halftime.

Then Meister and Durand got hot after intermission and OIT could not match their firepower.

Durand, a 5-foot-10 junior guard, scored seven points in the first 2½ minutes to get the Raiders off to a fast start. But the determined Owls clawed back to cut the SOU advantage to 47-40 at the 6:15 mark of the third quarter.

Then Meister exerted her will inside by scoring eight straight points to bump the lead to 15 during a 40-second span. The 6-2 senior finished with a game-high 24 points and eight rebounds.

“Obviously, we wanted to get the ball to Carly,” said point-guard Claussen. “Once she gets going, why not get it to her.”

Meister, who had revenge on her mind from the previous two postseason loses to the Owls, was determined to contribute.

“I definitely felt a rhythm,” said Meister, who scored 17 points in the second half. “Once I get going, you’re not going to stop me.”

Meister said the coaching transition from Lynn Kennedy, who became the head women’s coach at Portland State, to Carlson was difficult at first: “There was change in coaching philosophy. (Carlson) emphasizes the little things and defense. He’s developed us into more skillful players.”

Durand chipped in 15 points and a team-best nine rebounds.

Ashlei Vandenbrink and Megan Whetstone combined for 25 points for the Owls.

“You can’t compete with a team as good as Southern Oregon by committing 24 turnovers,” said Oregon Tech seventh-year coach Scott Meredith. ”At half, I was happy we were down by only five. But their big three were exceptional and carried them.”

Reach reporter Frank Silow at 541-776-4480, or email fsilow@mailtribune.com

Southern Oregon University senior Carly Meister goes up for a shot against Oregon Tech defenders Karissa Harbrick (25) and Megan Whetstone during the Cascade Conference final Monday at Ashland High. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.