The North Platte Community College women came from 13 points down Saturday to down United Tribes Technical College 57-55, claim the Division II Region IX District F Championship, and also earn a berth in the NJCCA National Tournament March 19-23 in Harrison, Ark.
“What an unbelievable accomplishment for our program and student athletes,” said first-year North Platte Coach Jeff Thurman. “This team is the definition of perseverance and heart.”
The Knights survived a 12-game losing streak mid-season, opened post-season play with a 5-22 record.
If post-season wasn’t enough adversity, the game started in McDonald-Belton Gym on the North Platte Community College camps but finished up at North Platte St. Patrick’s High School gym, because of an extensive power outage on the south side of North Platte midway through the second quarter.
And then things really looked dark for the Knights. Over at St. Pat’s gym, United Tribes took a 13-point lead with about three minutes left in the third quarter and still held a 49-38 lead with 7:09 left in the game.
A couple free throws by sophomore Madisyn Francis (Houston, Texas) with 3:13 left in the game cut the deficit to seven points at 52-45. A Nahatabaa Nacona (Chinle, Ariz.) drive down the lane with 2:49 left resulted in an old-fashioned 3-point play. Her free throw cut the game to 52-48.
UTTC hit one of two free throws to open the lead back five points at the 2:27 mark but a Francis 3-pointer with 2:10 left in the game made it a 53-51 game. The Thunderbirds hit a couple free throws at the UTTC end to make it 55-51 with 1:43 left to play. A short jumper just inside the free-throw line by Francis made it a two-point game, then a couple free throws by Nacona tied the game at 55 with 1:06 left to play.
“Our two sophomores are our leaders and they made the big-time plays down the stretch,” Thurman said.
After a defensive steal at the Thunderbird end, Nacona came back the other way in transition and hit the big bucket with 45 seconds left to give North Platte the 57-55 lead. UTTC turned the ball over in their end and North Platte was able to run down most of the clock before the Thunderbirds gained possession with time running out and did manage to get the ball down court but not anywhere near the basket.
Francis led NPCC with 24 points, Nacona scored 14 points (Chinle, Ariz.) and freshman Emily Joseph (St. Petersburg, Fla.) added 10 points.
Freshman Katie Cox (New Port Richey, Fla.) led the Knights with 11 rebounds to go along with five points. Nacona grabbed 10. North Platte out-rebounded United Tribes 52-45.
United Tribes shot 33.3 percent from the field, made five of 23 3-pointers (21.7 percent) and 10 of 12 free throws (83.3 percent). Tariq Brownotter led the Thunderbirds with 20 points before she fouled out. Kierra Johnson had 17 points.
The Thunderbirds finish the season 15-17.
The Knights shot 25.7 percent from the field on 74 shots, made five of 18 from the 3-point line (18.5 percent) and connected on 14 of 23 shots from the free throw line (60.9 percent).
North Platte, now on a four-game winning streak, won the season finale against Lamar Community College 76-49 on Feb. 22. The Knights opened the Region IX Tournament with a 78-67 win at home Feb. 27 over Southeast Community College then went to Columbus March 3 to beat Central Community College 68-60 for the Region IX Division II title.
The Knights improve to 8-22 on the season — but more importantly become one of 16 teams in the nation still playing for the national championship.
“This is a program-changing win and we are playing in the National Tournament!” Thurman said.
Pairings will be decided after this weekend’s district games.
First-round games will be played Tuesday and Wednesday, March 19-20 with quarterfinals on Thursday, March 21, the semi-finals Friday, March 22 and the finals on Saturday March 23. All games will be played at Pioneer Pavillion at Harrison, Ark on the campus of North Arkansas College.