By Matt Green
LAKELAND, Fla. – Same song, different verse. The Shorter women's basketball team is headed back to the national tournament.
The top-seeded Lady Hawks used a suffocating defensive effort in the second half and an impressive performance from its starting backcourt to topple second-seeded and defending region champ Emmanuel College 74-47 in the championship game of the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) South Region Tournament on Wednesday night in Lakeland, Fla.
The win propels the Lady Hawks (17-11) into the NCCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championship held next week in Winona Lake, Ind. It marks the fourth straight season that Shorter will participate in a national tournament – the Lady Hawks had made an appearance in the NAIA Division I Women's Basketball National Championship in each of the past three seasons, but were ineligible for postseason play this year due to its transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II.
"Our team is really excited," said Shorter head coach Vic Mitchell, who won his 392nd game as Lady Hawks' head coach. "It was an exciting night for our team. We really took this opportunity seriously and wanted to advance to another national tournament.
"We are very thankful to the NCCAA for allowing us to join and to come down here and compete for a championship during our transition."
Shorter had to hang on to beat No. 4 seed and tournament host Southeastern University by four in Tuesday night's semifinal. In that game, Shorter's bench scored 31 of Shorter's 53 points as the Lady Hawks' starters struggled to find their rhythm on the offensive end.
In the title game, however, Shorter kept the drama at a minimum against its old Southern States Athletic Conference rival, thanks in large part to its starting backcourt.
Karisma Boykin finished with a season high 23 points in addition to recording four rebounds, three assists and five steals. Ieshia Alexander dropped in 17 points and Kristin Nash – who was held scoreless in Tuesday's semifinal – hit four 3-pointers on her way to 12 points.
Together, the trio shot 17-for-34 from the floor and hit nine treys. As a team, the Lady Hawks hit 50 percent from the field, went 9-for-20 from beyond the arc and got all but four points from their starting five – Lynette Harris accounted for all four bench points for the Lady Hawks.
"Our three guards played extremely well," Mitchell said of Boykin, Alexander and Nash. "Our bench stepped up when we needed them last night and going into the game tonight, our starters really wanted to play better. They definitely went out there and did just that. When your guards play that well, it makes things a lot easier."
Shorter never let Emmanuel into the game after a nip and tuck first few minutes.
The Lady Hawks used a 10-0 run that spanned just over four minutes midway through the first half to turn a 17-all tie into a 27-17 lead with 5:36 to go until halftime. Karisma Boykin then sunk a half court heave at the halftime buzzer to put the Lady Hawks up 37-27 at the break.
It was smooth sailing from there for the Lady Hawks.
Over the first 10 minutes of the second half, the Lady Hawks outscored Emmanuel 24-9 to open up a 61-36 lead with 9:21 to play. The Lady Lions (20-12) never got closer than 21 the rest of the way.
Shorter outscored Emmanuel 37-20 in the final 20 minutes.
"Defensively we were solid the whole game," said Mitchell. "It was a complete effort on both ends of the floor."
The Lady Hawks held Emmanuel to 32 percent shooting for the game and forced 20 Lady Lion turnovers – 12 in the second half. Shorter also won the battle of the boards 36-34 as starting forwards Shelby Farrer and Lindsey Crawford grabbed nine and eight rebounds, respectively. Both Farrer and Crawford added nine points to the winning effort.
Farrer and fellow senior Chelsi Matthews now become the only Lady Hawks to reach four straight national tournaments. Another milestone is within reach for the Lady Hawks as they head to Indiana – three more wins would not only mean an NCCAA National Championship, but also a sixth straight 20-win season.
"This accomplishment is a tribute to a lot of different people," Mitchell said. "So many people have helped to get us to this point, and this team had the challenge of continuing that success despite us losing seven seniors and having 11 new players. I am really proud of this year's team for what they have accomplished.
"But we aren't finished yet."