Small College Sports

Explosive third quarter nets Kirkwood women's basketball another regional tournament crown

Eagles (31-3) advance to NJCAA Division II tournament with 65-52 win over NIACC

CEDAR RAPIDS — Longtime Kirkwood women’s basketball coach Kim Muhl insisted there was no fiery halftime speech.

The second-half fortunes of his team would rely on a pair of program staples — defense and rebounding.

“We just talked about defending and giving them one possession instead of two or three,” Muhl said after the top-seeded Eagles opened the second half with 18 of 20 points and ran past third-seeded NIACC, 65-52, in the NJCAA Division II regional tournament championship game Sunday at Johnson Hall. “It’s just a mindset. I think you’ve got to want to do it.”

The victory delivers Kirkwood (31-3) to the NJCAA national tournament for the 18th time — all under Muhl — and third in the last four years. Muhl and the Eagles won their seventh national championship last season, and with a No. 2 ranking and a 21-game winning streak, they will be one of the favorites this year, too.

“We’re definitely more well-rounded,” Kirkwood sophomore Olivia Usher said. “Our bench can come in and replace the starting five and be just as good, compete at the same level. Last year, we had seven to eight (players) that could go but this year, we have 10 to 12 that can go consistently and that is a big difference.”

Usher, a Cedar Rapids Prairie grad, scored nine points and is one of two returning starters from the national championship squad. The other is guard Tayana Wilson, who ignites the Kirkwood engine with an array of skills on both ends of the floor. The Illinois native led the Eagles with 17 points, four steals and halftime words of motivation.

“Me and Awal (Ajak) had a talk and I told Awal, ‘Go in and do your thing,’” Wilson said. “I’m like, ‘Awal just go in, we need you to get on the board to win this game.’”

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Ajak, a sophomore from Des Moines East, had just two points at halftime as her teammates stared at a 36-32 deficit. Ajak tied the game at 36-36 with two baskets to begin the second half, the first four points of the aforementioned 18-2 surge that gave the Eagles a 50-38 lead.

Ajak finished with 10 points, while former Center-Point Urbana prep Arika Wooldridge posted eight points and seven rebounds.

Sophomore Megan Axcell had a team-high eight rebounds.

Kirkwood outrebounded NIACC, 44-36, and held the Lady Trojans to just 4-of-35 shooting from the 3-point line. Mikayla Homola led NIACC (26-7) with 21 points and two steals.

Usher and Wooldridge were both named to the all-tournament team, and Wilson was selected as captain. Muhl was honored as ICCAC Coach of the Year.

The NJCAA Division II tournament begins March 20 in Harrison, Ark.

“We know we’re going to get everyone’s best game,” Usher said. “But they are going to get ours, too.”

NJCAA DIVISION II REGIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

At Johnson Hall

Kirkwood 65, NIACC 52

NIACC (52): Mikayla Homola 7-17 7-8 21, Taylor Laabs 0-8 2-2 2, UU Longs 3-8 1-4 8, Khalilah Holloway 1-1 0-0 2, Morgan Frank 1-2 0-0 2, Cici Kieger 2-8 0-0 5, Adria Stewart 0-4 0-0 0, Laker Ward 1-5 0-0 2, Kelsie Willert 2-3 2-4 7, Kenlie Pytleski 1-7 0-0 3, Totals 18-63 12-18 52.

KIRKWOOD (65): Tayana Wilson 6-16 3-4 17, Christmas Puok 0-6 0-0 0, Megan Axcell 1-3 3-4 5, Awal Ajak 3-8 4-4 10, Olivia Usher 2-6 5-5 9, Mackenzie Jenkins 1-5 0-0 2, Anasha Hurst 0-1 0-0 0, Niaja Taylor 1-3 0-0 2, Leah Robinson 3-5 1-1 8, Brianna Mensen 1-2 0-0 3, Arika Wooldridge 3-3 2-2 8, Totals 21-58 19-22 65.

NIACC 23 13 4 12— 52

Kirkwood 19 13 21 12— 65

Halftime — NIACC, 36-32. Three-point goals — NIACC 4-35 (Longs 1-2, Willert 1-2, Pytleski 1-5, Kieger 1-7, Ward 0-3, Stewart 0-4, Laabs 0-8), Kirkwood 4-13 (Wilson 2-3, Robinson 1-1, Mensen 1-2, Axcell 0-1, Usher 0-1, Ajak 0-2, Puok 0-3). Rebounds — NIACC 36 (KIeger 6, Laabs 6), Kirkwood 44 (Axcell 8). Assists — NIACC 6 (Long 3), Kirkwood 9 (Axcell 2, Hurst 2, Taylor 2). Turnovers — NIACC 13, Kirkwood 17. Total fouls — 17, Kirkwood 19.

l Comments: douglas.miles@thegazette.com

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