When the final buzzer sounded on Tuesday night, Westmont players and coaches rushed into each others arms, celebrating a 71-65 win over Lee of Tennessee (34-3) and their first NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship. Tears and smiles abounded as the Warriors’ quest to win five games in six days in the 32-team national tournament came to a successful conclusion.
“I am really happy for my players and the journey we have been through as a group,” said Westmont head coach Kristen Moore. “The perseverance we have shown through trials on and off the court seasoned us for all of the close games we have had throughout the entire tournament.”
“It means the world to me,” said Kelsie Sampson of winning the national championship. “This year is the best year of basketball in my entire life. To be able to experience it with the most amazing players and amazing coaches is an honor.”
Sampson scored 25 points and pulled down six rebounds for the Warriors while fellow forward Tugce Canitez scored another 25 points and collected 20 rebounds. It was the fourth time this season that Canitez has tallied at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in the same game.
“I can’t say enough about Tugce and Kelsie tonight,” said Moore. “They were really tough inside. They were great inside and had a great inside presence. They demanded a double team. If they were one-on-one they were going to score. Defensively, they made sure that we finished with rebounds. Rebounding and defense won us a championship tonight.”
Westmont outrebounded Lee 45-27.
The Lady Flames dominated the early part of the game, jumping out to a 16-8 lead with Hollie German accounting for 12 of Lee’s early points. German finished as the game’s leading scorer with 27 points. Jenna Adams added another 19 points and seven rebounds.
“If Hollie German sees any kind of daylight, that ball is going to go in the hoop,” assessed Moore. “(Jenna) Adams did a great job on us tonight too. They are both confident, aggressive scorers. They took our full attention the whole game because any let down and they would make us pay.”
The Warriors responded with a 9-0 run consisting of two free throws and a field goal by Canitez, a three-pointer by Esther Lee (12 points) and two free throws by Sampson.
However, momentum changed uniforms again as Lee put together a 10-2 run to take a 26-19 advantage with 8:14 remaining before the intermission. Adams accounted for the last seven points in the run.
The rest of the half saw momentum favoring the Warriors with a 15-4 run. The Lady Flames were held scoreless for more than four minutes as four different Warriors contributed to the offensive juggernaut that gave Westmont a 34-30 lead at the half.
Westmont never trailed in the second half, but there were three ties as the game remained closely contested. With the scored tied at 55, Westmont put together a 13-2 run to take the largest lead of the game at 68-57 with 4:44 to play.
Adams recorded a field goal and a three-pointer before German struck from beyond the arc with 32 seconds to play, making it a three-point game (68-65).
Canitez received the inbound pass and was fouled. She stepped to the line and missed the first free throw but connected on the second, making it a two-possession game. Though the Lady Flames got the ball back with 29 seconds remaining in regulation, the Warriors’ defense answered the call, refusing to give Lee an open look.
A field goal attempt by German was blocked by Canitez and recovered by Larissa Hensley (5 assists, 5 rebounds). Hensley returned the ball to Canitez for a fast break layup to account for the final score.
Eight seconds later, the celebration began.
In a postgame awards ceremony, Canitez was named to the Championship Most Valuable Player. Canitez led all participants in scoring (111 points), rebounds (71), rebounds per game (14.20), free throws made (44) and free throws attempted (51). The free throw stats established new tournament records.
Canitez was also honored as the NAIA Player of the Year. Canitez finished second in the NAIA in scoring with 689 points and second in points-per-game at 21.53. She is third in rebounding at 12.31 points per game and first in defensive rebounds at 9.09 per game. She also ranks third in double-doubles with 23.
“Being at Westmont these two years was awesome for me,” said Canitez who will graduate in May. “It wasn’t just playing basketball. They are my second family and support me all the time and make me better every day and they push me harder and harder. I am glad that I went to Westmont.”
Esther Lee was named to the All-Tournament Team. She recorded a tournament-high 17 three-pointers and averaged 13.20 points per game.
Moore was named the NAIA Coach of the Year after posting a season 30-4 record and going undefeated in GSAC play (14-0). After eight years at Westmont, Moore has accumulated an overall record of 173-78 (.689) and a Golden State Athletic Conference record of 97-55 (.638). Moore has won two GSAC regular season championships, one GSAC tournament championship and now, one NAIA National Tournament.