STEVENS POINT, Wis. – The Whitman women’s basketball team isn’t accustomed to getting off to slow starts.
It’s also not accustomed to losing this season.
The Missionaries were bitten by a slow start in their NCAA Division III national semifinal game against the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, but a loss wasn’t something Whitman had in mind.
After trailing by five, Whitman built a double-digit lead by halftime and never looked back, beating UW-Whitewater 85-70 Friday night at Bennett Court at Quandt Fieldhouse.
The win puts the Missionaries into their first national time game in program history. It will face undefeated Fairleigh Dickinson University Saturday night.
“I can’t think of any other way to end my career and with my family,” Whitman senior Meghan White said. “Oh, my gosh, it’s going to be so fun tomorrow and I’m so excited and so glad to have this opportunity.”
Playing in the Final Four was something the Whitman players have talked about since last season ended in the Elite 8.
“Winning last weekend (in the Elite 8) was huge and we were like, ‘Alright, we met our goal and we’re not done yet. We’re still going to go after it,’” junior Heather Johns said. “Anything else is icing on the cake.”
Johns played a major role in why Whitman is playing for the national championship. The West Region Player of the Year scored a career-high 33 points, hitting 12-for-22 from the field and draining 3-for-5 from 3-point range.
“I had a rough start,” Johns said. “I missed several of my first shots, I don’t know how many. My teammates always do a great job of picking me up. That’s something that’s really special about our team is if someone is having a rough start, they are right there patting me on the back say, ‘Shake it off, keep shooting. They’re going to fall, they’re going to fall.’ And for me they did.”
Johns’ teammates played big, too, as Sarah Anderegg (21 points, 12 rebounds) and Meghan White (10 points, 12 rebounds) each registered double-doubles. Hailey Ann Maeda added 10 points off the bench.
Playing UW-Whitewater in Stevens Point, Wis., was almost like Whitman having to play a true road game. The UW-Whitewater campus is just 150 miles from Stevens Point, so crowd support was highly lopsided.
“I think we basically knew that we were playing a team that was on their home turf, a team that’s obviously very comfortable coming to Stevens Point,” Whitman coach Michelle Ferenz said. “We knew we had an uphill climb and these guys responded very well.”
Whitman (31-1) was playing in its first national semifinal in program history, while UW-Whitewater (28-5) got to the national championship game a season ago, falling to DePauw 69-51.
Whitman looked like the more experienced team, however. It dominated in most major categories, including points in the paint, 46-26, and rebounds, 48-38. The Missionaries also shot the ball better than the Warhawks. Whitman was 49.2 percent from the field, including 4-for-7 from 3-point land, while UW-Whitewater hit just 33.3 percent of its 75 shot attempts and was a measly 6-for-22 from beyond the arc.
UW-Whitewater took an early 13-8 lead, but Whitman came back strong with a 19-7 first-half run to go up 27-20. The Missionaries ended the first half on a 12-4 run to go up 41-30 at the break.
It took a few minutes to get the Whitman players going on the big stage.
“I think we were also kind of nervous. It’s kind of a big of game,” Sarah Anderegg joked.
When UW-Whitewater wanted to make a push in the second half and cut its deficit, Whitman wouldn’t have it. The Warhawks got to within seven, 60-53, but it was quickly stretch to double digits at 66-55. The Whitman players were composed the entire game.
“For us, composure’s key. It’s something that we have to have,” Ferenz said. “That’s something that we really gained starting at the end of last year and then having all these young ladies come back.”
Momentum was hard to come by for UW-Whitewater.
“I thought they were in great shape,” UW-Whitewater coach Keri Carollo said. “We looked a little a tired and I thought that definitely was a contributing factor. We’d get a stop and we just couldn’t bounce back and get back-to-back stops. That was challenging.”
The Missionaries got their advantage to 15, 74-59, with 3:42 remaining as Johns continued her offensive barrage with back-to-back layups.
“I think we had a pretty good game plan and for the most part they did a good job executing it,” Ferenz said.