“Three! Two! One!”
The buzzer sounded and Pioneer players, coaches and fans stormed the court, cheering and leaping in celebration as the 49-35 final score was announced in the stadium, bestowing the Pioneers with its new title: champions.
On March 22, the second-seeded Pioneers defeated conference rival Baker University (Kan.) for the fourth time this season, but the sixth-seeded Wildcats started the game with the upper hand.
Baker led MidAmerica 12-7 at the end of the first quarter as both teams struggled offensively. In the second quarter, Baker pulled ahead 25-14 with 2:45 left, but the Wildcats’ 11-point lead would be its largest of the game.
Senior forward and NAIA All-American honorable mention Jasmine Webb laid in back-to-back shots in the paint and senior guard Kyleesha Weston hit a buzzer-beating three as time expired in the half, cutting Baker’s lead to four as MNU seized the momentum and electrified the crowd as they headed into the half, trailing 25-21.
The Pioneers did not miss a beat entering the third quarter as they continued to dominate on both sides of the ball. MidAmerica scored the next 11 points, putting together a 19-0 run before Baker found its lone basket of the third quarter with just 30 seconds left in the period. MNU led 35-27, just 10 minutes from the title.
After the game, head coach and NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball Coach of the Year Jon Lewis summarized the halftime adjustments the team made defensively to bring such a dominant second-half performance.
“[The halftime environment] was real calm and we just told them, ‘here’s what we are, here’s what they did.’ They were shooting 45 percent from three, we said ‘they can’t do it again, they can’t get an easy one on you, and you’re going to win this game.’ And they did it.”
Webb opened the fourth quarter with a stunning shot as she hit her first career 3-pointer to make the score 38-27, Pioneers. For the final nine minutes of the game, MidAmerica led by no less than 10 points. NAIA first-team All-American senior guard Megan Balcom said that Webb’s three was one of the most memorable plays of the game.
“One play that sticks out to me was Jasmine’s excitement when she hit that three,” Balcom said. “I was dying. I could not stop laughing running down the court. You could just see all the heart and all the passion come out in one play. It was awesome.”
Baker never took another meaningful run at the Pioneers, and the 49-35 victory was sealed with a suffocating second half defense. Webb explained the team’s mindset and why it was so difficult for Baker to break through the defense.
“All year we’ve been talking about ‘one possession at a time,’ and our defense, if we just cover each other up on defense, then we’ll be good,” Webb said. “We’re going to get everything on offense that we want to get. It’s all just team defense, buy into what the coaches are saying, stay focused and stay in a team unit and we’re good.”
“Good” may have been an understatement in this game. Baker’s 35 points were the fewest scored against the Pioneers all year. Balcom said that the team knew it would be their defense that would take them to the title.
“We just gathered everyone together and we were like, ‘the way we’re going to win this game and the way we won every other game in this national tournament is by our defense,” Balcom said. “Our post players were just in there dominating. They just came out and they were fired up after halftime. We all wanted it.”
After the final buzzer, awards were given out and Pioneer players and coaches took turns cutting down the nets. Weston, who led the team with 21 points in the championship game, was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Weston was named all-conference honorable mention before the tournament, and Lewis said Weston took that spot in the conference to heart.
“She was really kind of down in the dumps,” Lewis said. “She got honorable mention all-league and then she’s MVP of the tournament. She felt a little slighted, but she gave up some personal accolades for the success of the team and it paid off in the end.”
Weston said she took the honorable mention personally when she was ranked below ten other guards in the conference, but the people closest to her knew her potential.
“It’s something that, obviously, the conference didn’t see it, but my teammates and my coaches, they all saw it and they told me to prove them wrong, and I was happy to do that,” Weston said, still holding a piece of the championship net.
Weston, Balcom, Webb and forward Nathalie Felipe make up the Pioneers’ senior class and will be leaving MidAmerica as champions.
“It’s honestly… I feel like I’m in a dream right now,” Balcom said. “Emotion took over as we hugged each other and said ‘we’re not going down without a fight.’ … It was just a rush of emotion. I mean, a minute left in the game and all of us are just bawling out there trying to continue to play. It was just… it was crazy.”