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Too little, too late: Northern’s historic run ends in Elite Eight

ONU senior point guard Britt Lauck scored her 1,000th point on Saturday, but the Polar Bears fell to Christopher Newport in the Elite Eight. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

Up until Saturday, the largest deficit that the fifth-ranked Ohio Northern women’s basketball team had faced was nine points; they trailed by that margin at Muskingum early in the second quarter on February 4, although they would eventually win the game by eight.

In Saturday’s Elite Eight matchup with 10th-ranked Christopher Newport, the previously undefeated Polar Bears found themselves down 21 points at the 7:51 mark in the third quarter.

“They’re really good at pressuring, and their press, they’ve been doing it for 30 [plus] games now,” ONU senior point guard Britt Lauck said after the game. “We prepared for it the best we could in a day, we don’t face a ton of pressure. I thought we fought through it and started to figure it out, we just ran out of time.”

Christopher Newport’s run-and-jump full-court pressure, which translates into their half-court trapping defense, forced 19 Northern turnovers on the night. While Ohio Northern was able to storm back late in the game, cutting the deficit to three points at the 6:05 mark in the fourth quarter, the Polar Bears could not retake the lead. They fell 76-66, ending their deepest NCAA Tournament run in school history.

Saturday marked ONU’s first ever appearance in the Elite Eight, as they defeated 20th-ranked SUNY Geneseo on Friday night in their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1988. With Saturday’s loss, Ohio Northern finished the season 30-1. This winter, they broke the single-season win record (previously 27), completed the program’s first ever undefeated regular season, and this year’s senior class -- made up of Lauck, guard Angela Tesny and forward Amauria Campbell -- will go down as the winningest in school history.

“Even though the game against Christopher Newport was tough to lose, I still woke smiling on Sunday because of how incredibly proud I am of this team,” ONU head coach Michele Durand said this week. “It is hard to imagine an undefeated regular season, conference season and then to make it to the Elite Eight. All I can say is, ‘Wow.’ This team has worked extremely hard and deserve all the accolades they have received.”

On Saturday, however, turnovers proved costly for the Polar Bears. ONU came into Saturday’s game averaging just 12.6 turnovers per game, which ranked sixth in the nation. Newport’s chaotic defensive scheme forced an average of 26.3 turnovers per game, which, conversely, was good for fourth in the nation.

After a tied first quarter, the Captains turned up the pressure during the second quarter, allowing just eight points in the stanza.

Ohio Northern experienced a near-six minute offensive drought -- from the 7:17 mark in the second quarter until the 1:38 mark -- which included five turnovers and an 11-point swing. Newport’s lead swelled from six to 17, and the Polar Bears would trail at the half for just the second time all year, by 15.

“Once you get by the initial pressure, there’s definitely openings, but it’s just really difficult to get by it,” Durand said of CNU’s press on Saturday. “We tried to keep somebody in the middle… it’s really difficult when they’re big and athletic.”

While Christopher Newport’s starting lineup was no taller than Northern’s, their bench -- which averages nearly 40 points per game, as the Captains traditionally go 12-deep -- contained three players at least six-feet tall and one listed at 5’11. ONU’s only active player at six-feet was junior center Amy Bullimore, and the next-tallest Polar Bear was Campbell at 5’10.

CNU used their height and athleticism to make it difficult for Northern to work out of traps and see over the top of their press. But in the third quarter, after trailing by 21, Ohio Northern found opportunities by getting the ball to the middle of the floor.

Newport experienced an offensive drought of their own during the third quarter, as they did not score for nearly six minutes after going up 21 (their largest lead of the game). Northern forced three turnovers and the Captains shot 0-7 during that time period, while the Polar Bears pulled within nine behind seven quick points from junior guard Lindsey Black.

Northern trailed by eight going into the fourth quarter, and five straight points from sophomore forward Jenna Dirksen pulled the Bears within three with just over six minutes remaining. After a CNU run pushed their lead back to 10, Northern would fight back once more, cutting the deficit to four with 3:19 to play.

But two consecutive three-pointers from Newport’s Anitra Thomas in the last two minutes sealed the deal, and the Captains would go on to win by 10.

Newport made 13 threes on Saturday, as they shot 46 percent from long distance. Previously in tournament play, the Captains had made 17 threes over three games and shot 31 percent from long range, which was also their average for the season.

“What did they shoot from three?,” Durand asked in Saturday’s postgame presser. “And if you tell me that they’re going to do that again, I wouldn’t believe you. Because the stats don’t show that, that they shoot that well from the three-point line, and they did tonight. That’s kind of how we had to play them, because they get to the basket so well. We had to give up something, and that was it.”

Even Christopher Newport coach Will Broderick was a bit shocked by his team’s shooting performance on Saturday. However, Broderick believes that his team was able to hit shots because Northern did not pressure the three-point line as much as some of their previous opponents.

“Not our standard at all, usually we shoot about 30 percent,” Broderick said of his team’s long-range ability. “But usually people don’t play us in a zone, because we do have people who can knock shots down. Usually teams don’t back off that much, to give us those wide open looks. And I know a big part of their strategy is taking away the middle, forcing you to knock shots down because it’s tough, but I think the girls stepped up and really shot with confidence.”

Ohio Northern lost for the first time all season on Saturday night. They had not lost since March 5, 2016, when they fell in the second round of last year’s national tournament.

Lauck scored her 1,000th point late in the third quarter of Saturday’s game. She set the program single-season assist record this year, and was recently named First-Team All-Region by d3hoops.com. Lauck was named OAC Player of the Year and First-Team All-OAC this season as well.

Meanwhile, Durand finished the season tied with former coach Gayle Lauth for most career wins in school history. Durand also garnered Great Lakes Region Coach of the Year honors by d3hoops.com, and was named OAC Coach of the Year for the third time.

While Northern will graduate three key seniors -- Lauck led the team in scoring and assists, Campbell started at the power forward position and Tesny was a key contributor off the bench -- they will have a solid portion of their roster back next season.

Bullimore, who averaged 20 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in this year’s tournament run, will be back next year. Dirksen, who averaged just over 10 points per game, and junior guard Courtney Cramer, who is the team’s best perimeter defender, will both be back as well, along with an assembly of young talent who came off the bench this season.

Next year’s team will try to win the OAC title for the fourth year in a row, and will try to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in six years.

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