Raiders dig deep, advance to semifinals
SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Third-ranked Southern Oregon suffered arguably the most heartbreaking loss of the NAIA Division II National Tournament on Saturday evening, but it wasn't the Raiders' quarterfinal game against 11th-ranked Tabor (Kan.). That loss never came. With 9:05 left in the second quarter at the Tyson Events Center and the top-seeded Raiders leading the fourth-seeded Bluejays 22-15, senior point guard
Ashley Claussen dribbled toward the rim and fell near the baseline with an apparent injury. Claussen, the Cascade Conference Player of the Year and a national player-of-the-year candidate, was helped off the floor by two trainers but returned for the second half, and on SOU's very first possession her knees buckled and she crashed to the floor again — her outing, and possibly her season, over. But thanks to another wide-ranging cast of heroes, some more unlikely than others, the Raiders fought and scrapped without their star leader to a 73-67 victory of the highest mettle-testing order. Clinging to a 66-65 lead after Tabor's Tena Loewen scored with 3:24 left, SOU came up with six consecutive defensive stops to finish off the Bluejays, who had made the Raiders upset victims in last year's second round. SOU (32-1) will appear in its second national semifinal game and first since 1997, attempting to reach its first title game in Monday's 6 p.m. Pacific Time matchup against 18th-ranked Goshen (Ind.). "Ashley was playing better than anyone in the tourney, and when you lose not only your leader but the person who gets you into sets and makes every play, the floor is just not completely full at that point," SOU head coach
Alex Carlson said. "To go through that twice — having her go down in the first half, getting excited about having her back and then seeing her go down again — and to not say, 'Oh, God, we're done,' just shows the character of this team." Senior center
Carly Meister led the Raiders with 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting, scoring 14 of those as they built a 33-26 halftime lead. Sophomore
Toria Bradford, who helped fill in at point guard during Claussen's absence, tallied 14 points and five steals off the bench. And junior forward
Autumn Durand — who became the 18th 1,000-point scorer in SOU history with 16 in Friday's 81-70 second-round win over Briar Cliff (Iowa) — had 10 points and nine rebounds, also scoring what amounted to the game-clinching layup when she slipped off a pick-and-roll with
Demi Sahlinger to make it 69-65 with 35 seconds left. Tabor, which finished with a record of 28-8, was led by Loewen's 18 points on 9-of-9 shooting and 12 rebounds. The Bluejays shot 48 percent to SOU's but were bitten by a 22 turnovers, which gave the Raiders a plus-eight advantage — right at their NAIA-leading average — to total a 26-8 edge in points off turnovers. In the three minutes after Claussen went down for the second time, the Bluejays went on an 11-4 run to tie the game at 37. But Sahlinger's competitiveness kept the Raiders afloat: She scored six of her eight points in the period, including two a game-tying jumper and two game-tying free throws that erased SOU's only deficits of the half. "It's unbelievable what (Sahlinger) is doing offensively," Carlson said. "She was our leader out there." The score was knotted at 47 after Sahlinger's free throws when Bradford sparked a momentum-swinging sequence: Bradford, the CCC's co-defensive player of the year, picked Samantha Short's pocket and raced down the floor for a layup with 40 seconds left in the third.
Kristin Smeaton intercepted the ensuing inbounds passed and found
Taylor Nuttall in the corner, and without hesitation Nuttall swished a 3 for her first basket of the tournament to make it 52-47. The Raiders led 56-55 when 7:40 remaining when they found another clutch performer in
Majerle Reeves. The junior guard, who had been 1-for-10 from downtown in the tournament going into the fourth quarter, knocked down two 3-pointers in a span of 87 seconds to make it 64-58. "I've been telling Majerle all week she was going to hit a couple 3s that break a game open for us," Carlson said. "Her and (Nuttall) being ready for the opportunity ... I just don't think there's been more of a team effort in a big game for us." Taylor Hurd's 3-pointer immediately cut into the deficit for the Bluejays, and a pair of free throws from Amber Bonham made SOU's lead 64-63 with 4:40 left. Meister and Loewen then traded buckets before the Raiders clamped down defensively for the remainder of the night. Bradford made one of two free throws with 2:07 to play, and Durand's big bucket later made it a four-point game. With 17 seconds left, Durand iced it with two more free throws. Meister recorded SOU's only block during that stretch of stops.
Tiani Bradford (four steals) and Smeaton (two steals) were also catalysts on the defensive end. "We just dug down and that's what playing in any tournament is all about," Carlson added. "We talked at halftime about getting to the Final Four for Ashley because she deserves it, and we came out and finished play after play." SOU's next opponent, Goshen, advanced as a No. 5 seed with an 89-71 quarterfinal win over third-seeded Dakota Wesleyan for its third straight upset. The Maple Leafs (27-8) are in the semifinals for the first time in school history. "They're really good," Carlson said, "and they're massive." None of the remaining teams have ever won a Division II title after defending champion and top-ranked Morningside (Iowa) was knocked off by Marian (Ind.), 76-69. The Raiders are the only No. 1 seed left after Olivet Nazarene (Kan.) was routed by No. 3 seed Mount Marty (Iowa), 98-76. The final will be played on Tuesday at 7:04 p.m. Central Time.