Tigers too much for OCC Ambassadors in title game

Mar. 1—Ozark Christian couldn't get the ball through the hoop enough Friday afternoon when it met Champion Christian College in Joplin for the NCCAA Southwest Region championship.

The Tigers (21-4) held OCC (20-4) to just 27% shooting for the entire game, and the Ambassadors were just 21% from beyond the arc. The Tigers were an efficient 45% overall and 43% from deep.

Ozark took 14 more shots than Champion but failed to convert, and that was the story in its 79-61 loss.

Champion, of Hot Springs, Arkansas, led 14-10 with about two minutes left in the opening quarter but went on an 8-0 run from that point to close it with a 22-10 lead.

"You could tell that's a situation they've been in several times, and for us, it's newer to us," OCC head coach Kyle Wicklund said. "You could tell a little bit of the nerves were kicking in."

The Tigers stretched the lead to 13 in the early portions of the second stanza after a 3-pointer was made by Makayla Williams to make it 25-12. Moments later, a triple from Olivia Sepulvado made it 28-13, and the Ambassadors were looking at a deep hole.

"A hot start is kind of what we do as a team. And as a coach, I don't really like it because we start hot and then we kind of let up," CCC head coach Deanthony Ellison said. "I think in a game like this when you're playing a regional team at their home court, a hot start is very important."

OCC fights back

But Champion was charged with its fifth team foul with 6:23 to go before halftime, and that's when Ozark came alive. The Ambassadors outscored their opposition 13-6 the rest of the way. That took the score from 30-16 to 36-29 at the break.

"I'm proud of how we fought our way back in that second quarter to give ourselves a deficit that was as little as it was," Wicklund said. "Seeing the girls, collectively, all of us really, take a deep breath going into that second quarter and saying, 'Let's battle back.'"

Brooke Nice and Emmy Colin combined to score 7 in a row for OCC as Nice scored 5 of them off a 3-pointer and a layup around the four-minute mark. Nice's layup came off a pass by Kyndall Scott for the assist.

Reagan Etzel made it a 5-point game to start the third quarter with an attacking layup past her defender to make it 36-31. But CCC took off to quickly get a double-digit lead at 41-31 with 5 quick points from Alysia Pickett.

"I was telling them the whole time that basketball is a game of runs," Ellison said. "They're the home team, they can shoot well, the crowd is going to get behind them. They're going to make a run. While they make their run, we have to weather the storm. We have to take a few punches, but we have to fight back."

The two teams were separated by 10 or more for the remainder of the third period and most of the fourth. There were two instances in which OCC cut the deficit to just 9 but never got any closer.

Trailing by 15, Emma Floyd drew a foul and made both free throws to make it 65-52. The next possession, she drew a charge on Kamryn Gentry — CCC's MVP of the Southwest Region — and got the ball back for Ozark with 4:40 to play.

That charge was Gentry's third foul. Eleven seconds later, Floyd drew a foul on her on the offensive end, sending the 6-foot-1 freshman back to the free throw line and Gentry to the bench.

Floyd made both charities again and the lead was down to 11 at 65-54. Champion picked up its fifth foul of the quarter with 3:33 to go as Nice was fouled underneath the basket on a shot attempt. Nice made good on her free shots, and the score was 65-56.

Colin made a pull-up midrange jumper to make it 67-58 with 2:20 left in the contest. But the Ambassadors went quiet from there and Champion sealed the win with multiple 3-pointers.

OCC game plan

OCC had a game plan to limit Gentry on the offensive glass and try to keep her from beating them. Colin was even sent to box Gentry out from outside of the lane to try and avoid some of those second-chance opportunities for the Tigers.

Champion had two other players shine as Pickett finished with a game-high 25 points and Williams contributed 21 more. Gentry finished with 10 points and 23 rebounds. Justys Irish-Holmes added 13 points.

"I might be biased, but I think we have the best 1-2 punch in the nation," Ellison said. "Gentry is leading the nation in rebounds and is like third in points. My point guard (Pickett) is one of the most underrated players at this level. She doesn't always do this, but when a big game is needed she does this. It's a pleasure to coach both of them."

"It was difficult. I actually had a turnover because I tried to throw the ball to Emmy (Colin)," Gentry said.

That play was after a defensive rebound and Gentry looked up to see Colin already on the other end of the floor and may have had a flashback of all the days she used to throw long passes leading into a fastbreak to Colin when they were teammates.

"It was fun. It was fun to compete against them because I know their strengths but they also know mine," Gentry added.

OCC was led by Floyd with 14 points and nine rebounds. Colin added 12 and seven, while Etzel chipped in 10 points.

Ozark won the turnover battle 10-14 and was close in rebounding at 45-47. The Ambassadors did shoot a better percentage at the free throw line, going 14 of 19 (73.7%) versus the Tigers' 12 of 18 (66.7%).

These two teams have met in the regional championship twice in the last three years and the Tigers have won both meetings.

"Coach Kyle (Wicklund) does a great job with this team. He doesn't get enough credit for what he does," Ellison said. "They play hard no matter if they're up 20 or down 20. We knew it would be a dog fight. We won by 16 or 18, but if you watched the game, you wouldn't think that."

Ozark awaits news to see if it will be invited to the NCCAA national tournament starting March 14 in Minneapolis. With eight teams making the field and six getting automatic bids by winning the regional tournament, only two spots are left, and one is dedicated to the host if that team does not win its region.

If the NCCAA national tournament doesn't include OCC, it will get to make the trip to Minneapolis the same week for the ACCA national tournament, which serves as the NIT to compare it to Division I NCAA events.

Champion guaranteed a spot in the NCCAA tournament with Friday's win.