Small College Sports

Kirkwood women's basketball one win away from returning to NJCAA national tournament

Eagles (30-3) increase win streak to 20 games after 59-52 win over Southeastern

Kirkwood’s Christmas Puok, top, and Tayana Wilson pressure SCC’s Makenzie Penzley splits defenders during the Eagles Region XI semifinal game against Southeastern Community College on Saturday afternoon, March 10, in Johnson Hall on the Kirkwood campus in Cedar Rapids. (Ben Roberts/Freelance)
Kirkwood’s Christmas Puok, top, and Tayana Wilson pressure SCC’s Makenzie Penzley splits defenders during the Eagles Region XI semifinal game against Southeastern Community College on Saturday afternoon, March 10, in Johnson Hall on the Kirkwood campus in Cedar Rapids. (Ben Roberts/Freelance)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — It might not make the end-of-the-season highlight reel, but it was plenty good enough to stay in title contention.

The top-seeded Kirkwood women’s basketball team withstood several charges from fourth-seeded Southeastern and slogged their way to a 59-52 victory in an NJCAA regional semifinal Saturday at Johnson Hall.

“You’ve got to just play through those things,” Kirkwood Coach Kim Muhl said. “They played really well. I thought we were a little bit tight and a little bit of a struggle, but you’ve got to have kids step up. That is the bottom line. Survive and advance and that’s where we’re at right now.”

Southeastern opened the game with a pair of 3-pointers and Kirkwood seemingly got the game in hand with a 20-0 burst that bled into the second quarter. With the Eagles leading, 23-8, Southeastern rallied for 15 of 18 points to get within 26-23 just before halftime.

A Kirkwood 3-pointer by sophomore guard Awal Ajak beat the halftime horn and extended the Eagles’ lead to six, 29-23.

“We were together the entire time,” Ajak said. “We picked each other up when they were hitting shots. We weren’t selfish at all. We hustled, we guarded and we played smart. We followed Coach.”

Ajak and fellow sophomore Christmas Puok are both from South Sudan, where civil war forced both of their families to resettle in the United States a decade ago. Both played basketball for Sam Powell at Des Moines East, and five years after cousin Friday Choul completed a successful two-year stint with Kirkwood, Ajak followed suit.

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“I just followed her when she said, ‘Kirkwood’s great,’” Ajak said. “I was like, ‘Let me check it out’ and Coach Muhl, his background was just amazing.”

When Southeastern got within a basket at 34-32, Awal drilled her third 3-pointer of the game and scored six of Kirkwood’s first eight points in the second half. She finished with 14.

After Kirkwood extended its lead to 51-41 early in the fourth quarter, Southeastern managed to get as close as five on a couple of occasions.

Two late driving layups by sophomore guard Tayana Wilson helped keep the Blackhawks at bay.

“It was really good that we can pull ourselves together and win a game,” said Wilson, who led the Eagles with 15 points and six assists. “Even though it was an ugly win, but a win is a win.”

Former Center Point-Urbana prep Arika Wooldridge added nine points and a team-high six rebounds off the bench.

Nadirah Oakman had 20 points and three assists for Southeastern, which ends at 22-10.

Kirkwood (30-3) brings a 20-game win streak into a regional final against second-seeded NIACC (26-6) Sunday at 1 p.m. at Johnson Hall. The winner advances to the national tournament, where the Eagles are the defending champions.

NJCAA DIVISON II REGIONAL SEMIFINAL

At Johnson Hall

Kirkwood 59, Southeastern 52

SOUTHEASTERN (52): Andreisha Waller 4-10 0-2 10, Mackenzie Pezley 2-4 1-2 7, Nadirah Oakman 6-17 5-6 20, Miah Shelby 3-8 0-0 6, Ciera Walker 2-4 2-2 7, Benedetta Morpurgo 1-4 0-0 2, Jasmine Flowers 0-2 0-0 0, Totals 18-49 8-12 52.

KIRKWOOD (59): Tayana Wilson 6-11 3-4 15, Christmas Puok 0-4 0-0 0, Megan Axcell 1-4 0-0 3, Awal Ajak 5-9 1-1 14, Olivia Usher 2-3 0-0 4, Mackenzie Jenkins 4-6 1-2 9, Anasha Hurst 0-2 0-0 0, Niaja Taylor 0-0 0-0 0, Leah Robinson 1-3 0-0 3, Haley Mullinnix 0-0 0-0 0, Brianna Mensen 1-2 0-0 2, Arika Wooldridge 4-10 1-4 9, Totals 24-47 8-14 59.

Southeastern 6 17 18 11—52

Kirkwood 18 11 18 12—59

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Halftime — Kirkwood, 29-23. Three-point goals — Southeastern 8-19 (Oakman 3-7, Pezley 2-2, Waller 2-3, Walker 1-1, Morpurgo 0-1, Flowers 0-1, Shelby 0-4), Kirkwood 5-15 (Ajak 3-6, Robinson 1-1, Axcell 1-4, Puok 0-1, Jenkins 0-1, Wilson 0-2). Rebounds — Southeastern 31 (Walker 10), Kirkwood 26 (Wooldridge 6). Assists — Southeastern 8 (Oakman 3), Kirkwood 15 (Wilson 6). Turnovers — Southeastern 18, Kirkwood 14. Total fouls — Southeastern 12, Kirkwood 10. Fouled out — None.

l Comments: douglas.miles@thegazette.com

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