SIOUX CITY, Iowa - Behind senior guard Pazia Speed, 5th-seeded Huntington University (24-8) came back from a 23-6 deficit to pull out a 77-72 victory over 4th-seeded Menlo College (Calif.) in first round action of the 2014 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championships on Thursday afternoon. It marks the third time Coach Culler has guided the Foresters to the Sweet Sixteen with the last time in 2009.
While Speed led all scorers with 24 points, freshman Miranda Palmer came through with big buckets down the stretch. Under the spotlight of the national stage, Palmer broke a 69-69 tie in the last minute with a finger-roll layup as the shot clock expired to give Huntington a lead that wouldn’t be relinquished. Palmer added two crucial free throws in the final seconds to salt the game away.
The Foresters (24-8) chopped down the Oaks (25-6) despite allowing Menlo to shoot 53.9 (28-for-52) percent from the field. A key to Huntington’s success came at the free throw line, where they converted more free throws (23) than the Oaks attempted (15). The Foresters also turned it over only 12 times while forcing 20 miscues.
The third national tournament win in school history appeared unlikely for Huntington when Menlo raced out to a double-digit lead less than six minutes after opening tip. Two-time California Pacific Conference Player of the Year Jolise Limcaco dominated during that stretch. She piled up nine of her team high 18 points in fewer than five-and-a-half minutes.
Menlo still led 39-29 at the break, but an 18-4 Huntington run that ended midway through the second half put the Foresters in the lead. Sophomore Kelsey Hubble capped the spurt with a trey that made it 53-50 with 11:10 remaining. The game see-sawed the rest of the way until Palmer and company took control in the final minute.
After Palmer’s go ahead bucket with 39 ticks remaining, Courtney Baker and Palmer combined to go a perfect 6-for-6 in the waning seconds to secure the upset.
Head coach Shannon Osborne’s Oaks, who entered the tournament with 15 wins in their past 16 games, were held without a field goal in the final three minutes. They were led by the 18 points from Limcaco. Junior Laurel Donnenwirth had a double-double with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Vanessa D'Amico also poured in 16 points while Aaliyah Sowards rounded out the Oaks' double digit scoring with ten.
Palmer posted 20 points to compliment Speed’s 24. They combined with Amelia Recker (19 points) on 63 of the Huntington’s 77 points.
After shooting a dismal 29.0 percent in the opening period, the Foresters went 16-for-29 in the final twenty minutes to outscore the Oaks 48-33 en route to their impressive comeback. Huntington also canned 23 of their 29 free throw attempts which included hitting 14 consecutive in the second half to live up as the second best free throw shooting team in NAIA Division II.
Huntington will play at 1:45 p.m. on Friday versus top-seeded Northwestern (Iowa) (28-4).
(Modified from write-up by Alan Grosbach, NAIA)