Upset averted: VCSU women lose late to No. 3 Ozarks

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — It was hard to miss the passion that the Valley City State University womens basketball team had on the court during Thursday’s 57-51 loss to No. 3 College of the Ozarks (Mo.) in the opening round of the NAIA Division II Womens Basketball Championship at the Tyson Events Center.
At times, even the opposing team seemed surprised at the challenge the eighth-seeded and unranked Vikings put forth in a game that wasn’t decided until the final two and a half minutes.
“I think we took for granted who we were playing, them being a low seed,” said Ozarks guard Maranda Vaught. “They started playing with heart and we realized we had to dig deep.”
In the final two and a half minutes, the Bobcats avoided a first-round upset by putting together a 7-2 run to end the Vikings’ season.
The run started on a layup by Ozark’s Morgan Smith to make it 52-49 with 2:26 left.
Then, with 1:35 left, the Vikings were bringing the ball up-court, but Vaught swiped the ball away near midcourt and took it in for a layup to make it 54-49.
Twenty seconds later, VCSU missed a shot, Ozarks rebounded it, but VCSU forced a turnover. On the inbounds play, Ozarks’ Emily Walker got a steal, which led to a missed free throw.
After another missed shot by the Vikings, Smith had a rebound, then sank two free throws to make it 56-49 with 44 seconds left.
The Vikings didn’t get a point until Stephanie Pederson hit a long two with 10.7 seconds left that made it 57-51.
“We turned the ball over twice instead of getting a shot and you’ve just got to get shots,” Valley City coach Jill DeVries said.
But early in the game, the Vikings seemed strongly poised for the upset. DeVries compared the matchup with the Bobcats to that with rival Jamestown College. Both teams have a strong post player — Smith for the Bobcats, Bridget Schuneman for the Jimmies — with guards on the outside.
Early on, Smith hardly played a factor. Alyssa Hummel took primary responsibility, but Kelsey Hunter did her share due to early foul trouble for Hummel.  Smith finished the first half with only six points.
The Vikings also kept the Bobcats from getting many rebounds, and thus, second chance opportunities.
Combined with an early spark from post player Brittany Lehner, it allowed the Vikings to go up 9-6 in the first five minutes. Combined with points from Allison Scherr and Hunter, the Vikings eventually led by as many as eight, after Lehner hit two free throws with 5:58 left in the first half.
But late in the half, the Vikings strategy of keeping Smith out the action backfired a bit.
 “In doing that, eliminating her, we gave up threes,” DeVries said.
In four minutes, the Bobcats hit as-many three pointers — two from Vaught, one from Morgan Hickey and one from Kenzie Lauffer  — as part of a quick run that put the team up 25-21 with 1:39 in the half. Courtney Titus hit a layup and a free throw to make it 25-24 before halftime.
In the second half, the Vikings got a more balanced offense with Hunter, Lehner, Titus, Hummel, Katelyn Ralston, Sadiqah Jihad. All coming through at different points.
The Vikings last lead came on a midrange shot by Hummel with 10:30 left in the game, but the rest of the time, the Vikings played catch-up and lacked Lehner late due to foul troubles.
She fouled out with 3:03 left. 
“It hurt that Brittany got a few trying-to-block-shot fouls,” DeVries said. “She’s sort of our go-to kid and we didn’t have her down the stretch.”
Lehner led the Vikings with 16 points and Titus had 12. Hunter also had eight points off the bench. Smith led Ozarks with 19 points and Vaught had 11.
The Vikings also finished the game with 13 offensive rebounds compared to five for Ozarks.
DeVries expressed her pride with the team after the game, noting that as the season went on, each player fit into her role.
“I think it’s a successful season, particularly considering the adversity with kids getting hurt and kids not being on the team anymore,” DeVries said. “We never really felt sorry for ourselves and I’m very proud of the kids for that.”