Westmont College’s players put their big-girl pants on, went out on the court Tuesday, March 19, and won the biggest basketball game in the school’s history. The Warriors captured their first national title with a 71-65 victory over the Lee (Tenn.) Lady Flames in the NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball Championships at the Frankfort (Ky.) Convention Center.
Tugce Canitez led the way with a monumental double-double of 25 points and 20 rebounds in her final collegiate game. But the 6’2” senior from Turkey had lots of help from her teammates. Junior forward Kelsie Sampson also scored 25 points, while sophomore guard Esther Lee went 4-for-5 behind the three-point arc for 12 points. Senior guard Larissa Hensley had five assists. Sophomore guard Celina Gougis had nine points and seven rebounds. The Warriors were relentless on the boards, dominating Lee by a 45-27 margin.
Westmont trailed by as many as eight points in the first half but finished the period on a 15-4 run for a 34-30 lead. In the second half, Lee managed to tie the score at 55-55 with eight minutes remaining. Westmont took the lead for good on a baseline jumper by Gougis. A step-back shot in the lane by Sampson pushed the Warrior lead to 68-57, but the Lady Flames scored eight consecutive points, capped by Hollie German’s three-pointer, to make it 68-65 with 32 seconds on the clock.
Westmont looked to Canitez to secure the victory. She took the inbounds pass and held the ball in a vise-like grip until drawing a foul. She made one of two free throws for a four-point lead. For good measure, Canitez blocked German’s next shot and went in for a layup to conclude the scoring.
German, a 5’8” guard, scored a game-high 27 points. She made the all-tournament first team along with Lee and Canitez, who was named the most valuable player. Westmont’s Kirsten Moore was named coach of the year. Moore was a sentimental favorite. She took the Warriors to their previous high of the NAIA quarterfinals last year; only a few weeks later, she lost her husband, Westmont professor Alex Moore, a victim of Crohn’s disease; and seven weeks after his death, she gave birth to their daughter, Alexis.
Moore assembled a strong staff, including Meghan Gnekow (former USC player), Selena Ho (an outstanding player at Pacific and former UCSB assistant) and Emilie Johnson (UCSB’s All-Big West guard last year).
In postgame comments to the CBS Sports Network, Moore praised her players for their resilience. The Warriors came back from two bad losses in December to win 22 of their last 23 games and finish with a 30-4 record.
Westmont has won seven other NAIA national championships – five in women’s soccer (1985, 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2003); and one each in men’s soccer (1972) and women’s tennis (1982).