The three-peat is complete for the Southwestern Illinois College Blue Storm.
Erika McCaster scored 19 points and sophomore sparkplug LaTeesa Deloach added 13 to lead a solid team effort as SWIC earned a third straight trip to the NJCAA Division I National Tournament with a 53-51 win over powerful Wabash Valley College on Saturday in the title game of the Region 24 Tournament at Rend Lake College in Ina.
"Sometimes at a time like this, you really don't know what to say except that I'm way proud of my girls. It didn't look good for a while in the first half, but we kept battling and got ourselves back in the game,'' Blue Storm coach Mike Juenger said. "This was a team win. Some girls who sometimes don't get a lot of playing time stepped up and just did a great job.
"Wabash is a great team and Zach (Loll) is a great coach, but for this group to be able to get back to the national tournament again is just a great accomplishment. Three years in a row. I can't ever recall anybody doing that before.''
SWIC (23-5) will compete in the NJCAA Division I Tournament, which will be held March 17-22 at the Bicentennial Center in Salina, Kan. First-round pairings will be announced later this week. The trip to the national finals will be the fifth since the 1999-2000 season for the Blue Storm.
"We're going to take two or three days off and get healthy then we'll come back on Thursday and start to get ready,'' Juenger aid. "The only thing about it is that we're on spring break this week, but the girls are excited about practicing.''
Beaten twice by a combined 28 points by the 17th-ranked Warriors during the regular season, SWIC trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half.
But switching to a man-to-man defense late in the first half, SWIC rallied and when McCaster drained a 3-point shot at the end of the first half, SWIC had the lead and the momentum.
The Blue Storm held the lead for much of the second half. SWIC led by four points late but Wabash Valley cut the lead to one.
Sophomore Mone'y Black hit one free throw with 10 seconds left to make the score 53-51 and when the top-seeded Warriors missed two shots in the final five seconds, the Blue Storm was headed for Salina -- again.
As the final buzzer sounded, Blue Storm players rushed the floor and the celebration was on.
"Oh my gosh, they went crazy. Running and jumping on each other. They were so excited,'' an emotional Juenger said. "Erika (McCaster) was great and 'T' (Deloach) didn't have a good shooting night but she made free throws down the stretch.
"I'm just so proud of our post players. Bre (Baker), Brea (Gegg), Sorriyah (Ranger), Samantha (Smith). All of those girls just stepped up big time tonight. They all scored a little, did a great job on the boards and together we held the best player in the region in check,'' Juenger added. "We are going to enjoy this for now. We deserve too. These girls have worked so hard and like I said before, this was a total team effort."
Contract reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or email@example.com