Besides host school William Woods University, located a little more than two hours away in Fulton, Mo., a few other women’s basketball teams benefited from having the NAIA Division I National Championships virtually in their back yard at the Independence Events Center.
MidAmerica Nazarene, Benedictine and Baker had even shorter drives from Kansas, coming from Olathe, Atchison and Baldwin City, respectively. They still booked hotels in Independence but enjoyed being able to keep their preparation routines relatively unchanged, not to mention probably the largest partisan crowds from the first-round games at the IEC.
Benedictine certainly appreciated the extra noise Wednesday, as the Ravens held off Wiley (Texas) in the second half and overcame 21 offensive rebounds by Wiley for an 83-76 first-round win.
“We are super-excited to be in Independence,” Benedictine coach Chad Folsom said after his team improved to 26-8. “It’s about only an hour away, and we had great support.”
Chayla Rutledge, a junior from Stockton, Mo., and the team’s leading scorer with 17 points, called the atmosphere “awesome.”
“We had all of our family and friends here, and the cheerleaders,” she said. “It just felt like we were playing at home,” added senior Jackie Ziesel, a St. Joseph LeBlond graduate.
MidAmerica Nazarene coach Jon Lewis, whose team overcame 19 turnovers and squeaked out a 72-69 win Thursday night over Wayland Baptist (Texas), said having the national tournament less than an hour from campus provided some extra motivation after qualifying the last three years when the tournament was in Frankfort, Ky.
“It put some pressure on the regular season for us,” he said. “It’s centrally located, so it helps a little bit as far as east-west teams.”
The Pioneers (27-6) trailed 32-27 at halftime, but Olathe South grad Megan Balcom’s 3-pointer with 3:56 left broke the game’s eighth tie and gave them the lead for good at 68-65.
Baker and William Woods each drew some fuel from their crowds to make big second-half comebacks, only to fall short.
Baker (21-10) was shooting just 9 of 55 and trailed Oklahoma Baptist 46-28 with eight minutes left, only to slice the deficit down to 50-47 with a chance to tie or get within one in the final 20 seconds, but a turnover killed the Wildcats’ hopes.
“The crowd certainly helped in the last four to five minutes to find the energy because we had been working so hard playing defense,” Baker coach Ben Lister said. “We just picked the worst time to have a bad shooting night.”
Lister said the tournament’s proximity allowed his team another day of practice at home another night in their own beds rather than taking a day to travel. And of course, the fans didn’t have to trek as far, either.
“We had what I thought was great support when we went to Kentucky (for last year’s tournament), but today was phenomenal,” he said. “I think the tournament overall is an improvement from last year. I just wish we could’ve stayed longer.”
William Woods received an automatic bid since it was considered the host school, which coach Dan Chapla said made him more motivated to make sure his team didn’t cruise through the season after qualifying for the previous six national tournaments.
“We’d earned it the last six years, and we earned this trip,” he said Thursday evening after his team dropped a 62-61 heartbreaker to Bethel (Tenn.), finishing the season 23-9. “I think knowing they were in helped them relax the last few weeks, and I’m glad our kids earned an at-large.”
Chapla’s Owls trailed 38-22 at halftime and 44-22 early in the second half but rallied all the way back to take a 56-55 lead with three minutes left, only come out on the short end of a 3-pointer exchange in the final 30 seconds.
“It’s been great. We loved it here, I think the city’s been a great host and the venue’s great,” Chapla said. “We have a lot mid-Missouri kids, so their parents were able to come see them.”