After the Athenas won the tip-off, the rest of the game was history. The Claremont-Mudd-Scripps women’s basketball team (22-5, 15-1 SCIAC) set the tone of the SCIAC championship final against the California Lutheran University Regals (19-8, 12-4 SCIAC) with a high-energy, fast-paced game resulting in a 75-48 blowout that secured the Athenas' spot in their third consecutive NCAA Division III Tournament.
At their SCIAC finals Saturday, Feb. 27, CMS started off strong, ending the first quarter 18-13 with eight points from Kailee Severt CM '18 in the first quarter alone. Despite a few nail-biting minutes of doubt in the second quarter, in which Cal Lutheran took advantage of a temporary breakdown in the Athena defense and trailed behind by only one point, CMS maintained the lead throughout the game.
Jai Dungca CM '17 reignited the team as she found her groove toward the end of the second quarter, sinking two three-pointers and hitting an open layup after a deft steal with just over a minute remaining in the half. Dungca ended the game with 16 points and was 4-4 from three-point range with two steals and one rebound. The Athenas regrouped on both ends of the court, forcing two airballs and a number of empty possessions from Cal Lutheran and ending the half up 42-25 and shooting 56.3.
The Athenas held no less than a 14-point lead throughout the second half, holding the Regals to only 16 points in the third quarter and seven points in the fourth. Mara Falahee SC '16 and Severt put up 11 and eight points respectively, and Falahee ended the night with perfect 5-5 field goal shooting and making all three of her three-point attempts. By pushing the ball up the court with ease and sustaining their strong defense, CMS presented multiple challenges for Cal Lutheran. While the Regals had some good open looks, they ultimately could not come back from their first half 17-point deficit.
Head coach Kristen Dowling, who has helped bring the Athenas three consecutive regular and post-season titles in her four years with CMS, attributed their victory to the teamwork, particularly on defense.
“Our young women were focused, they played hard, they played together, and they got after it defensively,” Dowling said. “It was a total team effort starting on the defensive end.”
Dowling also stressed the importance of building a strong sense of community within the team and how that has translated onto the court this season.
“Our expectations are always to put together the best team possible and to have a great culture,” Dowling said. “We know that if we focus on the culture, the people, and the process, the winning will take care of itself. We’re led by a great senior, Mara Falahee—she sets the tone and the culture and has done a great job leading the team.”
After reaching the NCAA Tournament only to lose in the first round for the past two seasons, Dungca noted the potential for redemption this year.
“[Reaching the NCAA Tournament again] definitely gives us more confidence,” Dungca said. “Last year, I feel like we were playing to live up to what we did the year before, but we learned that we can’t compare teams before to now because everyone is totally different.”
Dowling stated that the team’s experience in the tournament will help them succeed in the upcoming game.
“We’re excited, we’re ready, we’re prepared,” Dowling said. “This is a group that’s been here before, so they know what to expect. We’re excited for another opportunity to play.”
If the Athenas win the first round game on Friday, Mar. 4, against Trinity College (22-5, 11-3 SCIAC) in Tyler, Tex., they will continue to play the winner of the University of Texas (26-3, 15-3 conf.) and University of California, Santa Cruz (17-8, 15-7 conf.) matchup on Saturday, Mar. 5.