CEDAR RAPIDS — A glance at the Gogebic Community College women’s basketball roster reveals just seven players.
The No. 15-seeded Samsons from Ironwood, Mich., are the first-round opponent for second-seeded Kirkwood in the NJCAA Division II women’s basketball national tournament, which begins Tuesday in Harrison, Ark.
With superior depth and dogged defense, the chase for another Kirkwood national title begins in earnest.
“I think that is going to be a huge advantage for us,” Kirkwood freshman Brianna Mensen said. “Our first group is going to do a lot of running, especially with our press and then the second group will come in with just as much energy.”
The game begins at 3 p.m. Iowa time.
Kirkwood (31-3) — winners of 21 games in a row — did not allow any of its 31 NJCAA opponents to reach their points per game average this season. The Eagles rank fifth in the country in scoring defense at 47.3 points per game allowed.
“We practice (defense) every day,” said sophomore guard Awal Ajak, who is a graduate of Des Moines East. “Our main focus in this program is rebounding and defending. That is how we win games.”
The Kirkwood defense figures to receive a stiff test from Gogebic sophomore guard Lori Wardynski, who leads Division II in scoring with 27.0 points per game. Wardynski has scored 105 points in her last three games, including a season-high 48 March 4 against United Tribes Tech to earn a spot in the district championship game.
Gogebic (16-12) averages 79.6 points per game as a team, which ranks 16th in Division II.
“They’re not real big,” Kirkwood Coach Kim Muhl said. “They try to play fast. They are guard-oriented. … She is obviously a scorer. The little bit I’ve watched on film, she shoots from anywhere.”
Muhl and Kirkwood are making their 18th appearance in the national tournament and won their seventh national championship with a 37-0 record last season. The title of “defending national champions” has made the Eagles a team everybody circles on the schedule.
“Even at the very beginning of the year, we’ve always known that there is a target on our back,” said Mensen, who played high school basketball for Maquoketa Valley. “So it is something I feel like our team is comfortable with.”
Mensen is one of the first reserves off the bench for Kirkwood, which has a roster that runs 14 players deep. All but one play more than an average of nine minutes per game.
“The first group is all sophomores, so we learn a lot from them here in practice,” Mensen said. “It’s like a battle every day in practice and then coming off the bench, it’s just as easy to make sure you’re fighting every minute.”
Tuesday’s winner will play the winner of seventh-seeded North Arkansas (19-6) and No. 10-seed Bryant & Stratton (Wis.) (19-12) Wednesday at 8 p.m. Should North Arkansas win, the national quarterfinal would be a true road game on the North Arkansas home floor.
“Just be ready to play because everything changes and there are lot of variables,” Muhl said. “The bottom line is, we’ve just got to go play one game at a time.”
The tournament features 16 teams in a single-elimination format, all played in Harrison. Kirkwood’s side of the bracket is off Thursday before the semifinal round, which is played Friday.
The national championship game is Saturday at 7:30.
“Focus on the first game and focus on winning,” Ajak said.
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