Westmont women's basketball is one of 16 teams remaining and will travel to Sioux City, Iowa for the 2023 Women's Basketball National Championship | Credit: ENTENZA

An opportunity to win one last game at Murchison Gymnasium, cut down the nets, and advance to the Sweet 16 of the NAIA Women’s Basketball Tournament brought the fight out of the Westmont women’s basketball team. 

The Warriors trailed visiting Southern Oregon at halftime, but exploded in the second half to capture a resounding 63-49 victory on Wednesday night in a second-round battle.

“One of the key components this team set out to do at the beginning of the year was to be united and rise above whatever adversity came our way,” said Westmont head coach Kirsten Moore. “I just think they’ve been so true to that.”

Westmont lost sophomore guard Laila Saenz to injury in its first-round victory over Antelope Valley. Saenz was an All-Golden State Athletic Conference selection this season and is one of the best three-point shooters in the country, converting more than 41 percent of her attempts from behind the arc.

Southern Oregon set the tone of the game early with energy, execution, and impressive shot-making. Westmont kept the game close, but the Raiders never trailed in the first half and built their lead to 26-20 on a highly contested mid-range shot by Emma Schmerbach midway through the second quarter. 

Kate Goostrey and All-American Stefanie Berberabe carried the Westmont offense in the first half, but the rest of the Westmont team only had five points combined. 

Southern Oregon’s junior forward Kami Walk faked a handoff near the three-point line and glided to the rim to put the Raiders ahead 30-27 with 10 seconds remaining in the first half. 

Regardless of the outcome, it was going to be the final game of the season at Murchison Gymnasium, but through one half of play the the No. 2–seed Warriors were on the brink of elimination.

“We just needed a punch from the start [of the second half]. We had a slow start as you saw, but we made sure to go out there with momentum and confidence,” Berberabe said. “We wanted to make sure we left no doubt out there.”

Westmont got the spark it needed from freshman Bailey Fong, who, despite only scoring two points in the first half, caught fire when her team needed it most. 

Fong knocked down her first five three-pointers of the second half and ignited a 17-5 Westmont run to open the third quarter. 

“In the first half, I didn’t really get many shot opportunities, so I was just trying to stick with it. In the second half, my teammates got me the ball,” Fong said. “They trusted me, and I knocked one down. I just kept being confident shooting and they just went in.”

Late in the game, Berberabe simply took over. Improved execution offensively by Westmont resulted in favorable matchups, and when fatigue settled in on her opponents, Berberabe had an extra gear. 

Stefanie Berberabe finished with 17 points against Southern Oregon on Wednesday. | Credit: Gary Kim

On more than one occasion, Berberabe’s crossovers and change of speed sent defenders to the floor. A Berberabe drive and dump off to a wide-open Destiny Okonkwo at the rim gave Westmont a 54-42 lead with 5:42 remaining.

“The bottom line is that [Berberabe] is just tougher than anyone I’ve ever seen, and so when everybody gets tired, that’s where she just shines, because she is tough enough to grit through it,” Moore said. “It doesn’t mean she wasn’t tired; she is just tough, and so she makes plays down the stretch.”

The lead ballooned to 60-44 with just less than two minutes to play when Fong found Goostrey for an easy basket at the rim, and the celebration was on.

The battle-tested Warriors embraced each other and cut down the nets, having defended their home court for the final time. Now comes the final chapter in Sioux City, Iowa, where four more wins bring a National Championship.


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