By Murray Evans
WINONA LAKE, Ind. (March 15, 2013) – Oklahoma Christian coach Stephanie Findley had a message for the Lady Eagles on Friday – they might not be able to play for a national championship, but they still can end their basketball season with a win.
The team’s two seniors say that possibility will motivate them Saturday, when they play longtime small-college power Union (Tenn.) in the third-place game of the National Christian College Athletic Association Championship. Game time at the Orthopaedic Capital Center will be 11 a.m. Central time.
OC’s national-title hopes ended Thursday night with a 98-86 loss to California Baptist. But the NCCAA plays its national tournament out with third-, fifth- and seventh-place games and that will provide the Lady Eagles – who made the program’s first national-semifinal appearance – an opportunity to end the season on a positive note.
“We have a chance to win our last game and not a lot of teams get to do that, so it’s kind of encouraging and exciting, knowing that we can go out on a win,” senior guard Madison Middle said.
Added senior center Katy O’Steen: “It’s cool to know that our last year, we made it as far as we did. Sure, it does stink that we didn’t make it all the way, but it’s still really cool to know that we’ve done something that’s never been done in OC history for women’s basketball .”
OC (20-12) practiced Friday at a local high school and spirits were high as they prepared to face Union (21-9), a storied program that won five NAIA championships, all during national tournaments played in its hometown of Jackson, Tenn. Union is in the second year of the NCAA Division II membership process.
“It will be nice to play them on a neutral floor,” OC coach Stephanie Findley said.
The Lady Eagles are 1-6 all-time against Union. The win was a memorable one, a 65-64 decision during the second round of the 2003 NAIA tournament, with upwards of 3,000 Union fans cheering against the Lady Eagles.
The teams last met in the 2010 NAIA quarterfinals, when a top-seeded Union team downed an upstart OC squad that included four players still with the Lady Eagles – Middle, O’Steen, Middle, Krista Stevens and Kaitlyn Morris.
“We’re ready,” O’Steen said. “We’ve got a lot to prove. Madison and I both know from playing Union three years ago, that was a hard loss for us. We’re ready to pay them back.”
This season’s Union team is particularly strong from the outside, shooting 35.6 percent from 3-point range. In their NCCAA opener, an 81-75 overtime win over Roberts Wesleyan (N.Y.), the Bulldogs took 41 3-point shots (making 15) and just 16 2-point shots. Union took 30 3-point shots (making 11) in a 68-67 overtime loss to Southern Nazarene in the semifinals.
Amy Philamlee (14.1 points per game) and Amber Rechis (11.7 points per game) are two of Union’s primary sharpshooters. Five Union players have hit more than 30 3-pointers this season, led by Rechis, who has made 77.
“They’re definitely not very big,” Findley said of the Bulldogs. “That could be good or bad. If they’re hitting threes like Cal Baptist did, it’s going to be hard to beat them. But if we can use our size and take the ball inside on them, then maybe we can balance that out.”
O’Steen, who has a 15.9-point per-game scoring average, needs 15 points against Union to move into the top 10 on OC’s all-time scoring list. She scored a career-high 31 points in the loss to California Baptist.
Despite the disappointment of the semifinal loss, Findley noted Friday that this season’s OC squad is the first to advance so deep into a national tournament and that her players should take pride in that. She also has told them to approach Saturday’s game with an eye toward the future.
“We’ve done more than we’ve ever done by getting to the Final Four and now we want to complete that by winning third place,” Findley said. “We want that and beating Union would be a big deal. We have talked about making this a whole new season. We have the opportunity to win our last game, going into next year, so we’re thinking of this as a one-game season and we want to finish it undefeated.”