Women stun Jays, qualify for national tournament
Before the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference postseason tournament started, Webster University women’s basketball coach Jordan Olufson told his players that the regular season no longer mattered.
“When you’re playing in this tournament, only today matters,” Olufson said. “The other games go out the window. Today is make or break.”
The Gorloks had this in mind when they defeated Westminster College 74-58 on Feb. 26 in the SLIAC tournament championship game to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III postseason tournament. Wesminster had beaten the Gorloks in both of their regular season matchups by a combined 55 points.
Webster knocked off Fontbonne University 72-68 in the semifinal on Feb. 24 to set up the championship showdown with Westminster. Fontbonne had beaten Webster 57-56 only two days before the Gorloks returned the favor.
The tournament championship was the first for Webster since 2005. The farthest the Gorloks have ever made it in the national tournament is the Sweet 16.
Webster’s NCAA first-round tournament opponent will be Illinois Wesleyan University. The game will take place on March 4 at 7 p.m. on Wesleyan’s home court in Bloomington, Illinois.
Wesleyan plays a similar defensive scheme as Westminster, according to sophomore forward Tori Fenemor. The Gorloks will focus on breaking through the high-pressure defense and full-court press that marks Wesleyan’s play.
“They are a good team, nationally-ranked,” Fenemor said. “If we play like we did against Westminster and their defense, I think we can beat them.”
Watching game film is vital for the Gorloks’ preparation. Olufson has never faced Wesleyan as the Webster coach, and this week’s practice will focus on finding lanes in the defense.
“They worked so hard for this; they’ve earned it,” Olufson said. “We’ll go play just as hard, and put in the work for [Wesleyan] and we’ll see what happens. But I believe we can beat them.”
It wasn’t until there were only 42 seconds left in the Westminster game that sophomore point guard Maggie Zehner knew the Gorloks had the SLIAC tournament wrapped up.
After watching a lead slip away in a regular season game against Fontbonne — and the Gorloks’ own comeback victory only two days prior — Zehner said she “couldn’t let herself get too confident” until the final seconds of play.
Despite being heavy underdogs, friends, family members and Webster students took a school-sponsored bus to Fulton, Missouri, to show their support for the women’s basketball team. The final between Webster and Westminster drew a standing-room only crowd to Westminster’s gym.
“We just needed to keep our composure, and we would win this game,” Olufson said.
Before Webster played Westminster, Olufson predicted “our girls by four.”
Led by the performances of Zehner and senior Katy Meyer, who scored 17 and 21 points respectively, the Gorloks had a good shot selection and made 46 percent of their attempts from the field.
Meyer, who scored 19 points in the first half alone, hit three 3-pointers early in the game to excite the Webster crowd. Along with her 21 points, Meyer grabbed nine rebounds, which helped her earn the SLIAC tournament MVP award.
Meyer has also been selected as a finalist for the Josten’s Trophy, an award given to Division III men’s and women’s basketball players. Meyer is the first women’s player from the SLIAC to be named as a finalist for the award.
“Katy is the key to our team,” Fenemor said. “She’s the leader on and off the court, her presence is powerful and her leadership has brought us a long way.”
Zehner, who had four steals in the championship game and 10 for the entire tournament, was also named to the All-Tournament team.
“I was in awe of the whole thing; just an incredible experience,” Zehner said.
The Gorloks spent most of the opening round game against Fontbonne struggling to catch up. The final six minutes of the second half saw the Gorloks overcome a 12-point deficit.
Zehner, who notched six steals in the game, brought the Gorloks to within four with two minutes to go, 67-63.
After a Fontbonne free throw brought the score to 68-63, Zehner ran the length of the court and slid a pass to Fenemor, whose basket brought the Gorloks to within three points.
Seconds later, a Zehner steal electrified the Webster crowd, who leapt to their feet when sophomore guard Airyn Miller sank a 3-pointer to tie the game at 68-68 with 1:07 on the clock.
Another layup by Fenemor and a bonus free throw gave the Gorloks the lead.
“I was really nervous,” Fenemor said. “I knew if I made it, we’d have the lead and all the momentum.”
Zehner’s final steal of the night would come on the last Fontbonne possession with less than 10 seconds on the clock. The steal sealed the victory for the Gorloks.
“What’s funny is I’ve been struggling defensively all season,” Zehner said. “I’ve been really working on staying in the passing lanes and looking for opportunities. I guess it just finally clicked for me.”
– Josh Sellmeyer also contributed to this report.