Strong fourth quarter defense propels Northwest Florida State to 2021 national title with 67-60 win over Trinity Valley
LUBBOCK, Texas – Bart Walker thought just reaching the championship game of the NJCAA Division I Women’s Basketball National Tournament was a dream come true. So, this must be like heaven.
All year long, Northwest Florida State College relied on a smothering defense that led the nation in points against, coming into the NJCAA Women’s Division I National Championships allowing fewer than 50 points per game. That defense showed up big time in the fourth quarter, and a strong fourth quarter helped the Raiders make history.
Tournament Most Valuable Player Last-Tear Poa scored a game-high 20 points, and the Raiders captured the first national title in school history with a 67-60 victory over Trinity Valley Community College Saturday at the Rip Griffin Center in Lubbock.
“I’m numb,” Walker said as the confetti flew and the players cut down the net. “Somebody asked me the other day if we win it when I think it will kick in, and I said probably somewhere on that 16-hour drive home.”
Walker and the rest of the Raiders will have plenty of time to celebrate and reflect on their run to the national title and plan the celebration back in Niceville.
What they will reflect on is a second half in which the Raiders held the Lady Cardinals to just eight total field goals and forced 13 of Trinity Valley’s 20 total turnovers. More importantly, they found a way to overcome the athleticism and height advantage that Trinity Valley had used in knocking off Chipola the night before.
“We finally did lock them down,” Walker said. “They’re so big and tough, and we got some good stops but they got some offensive rebounds, and it’s hard to handle that size. But again, I say it all the time, this team just loves each other and plays for each other and finds a way to win.”
After combining for 19 points in the first half, the Trinity Valley trio of Mahoganie Williams, Taiyanna Jackson and Kaye Clark had just 15 points in the second half while Northwest Florida’s duo of Chanaya Pinto and Last-Tear Poa came alive at the right time.
Tied at 53, Shelbee Brown, who spent Friday night in the hospital getting an IV due to dehydration, and Masengo Mutanda hit consecutive shots, then after a Williams layup, Pinto drained her first 3-pointer of the game after six misses to make it a 60-55 game. Trinity Valley came back with five straight before Poa sank two free throws and Pinto, who finished with 17 points, hit another 3-pointer from the top of the key as the shot-clock buzzer went off, putting the Raiders back up five at 65-60.
Trinity Valley had two chances to close the gap but turned it over once and missed a layup on the other, and Noelle Yancy iced it with a layup with 0.5 to play.
“We tried to meet those big girls higher, make them play away from the rim a little bit and not let them get in their comfort zone,” Walker said. “We worked on, when they were at the high post, trying to get to the block. We wanted to hit them early and try to slow down that progress.”
For Trinity Valley (22-3), it is another season with a heartbreaking ending. The Lady Cardinals have appeared in four of the last five championship games but have come up shot each time, and this one will hurt a little more after the way they dominated the first half.
Trinity Valley opened the championship game picking up where it left off in the semifinals by using its length and athleticism inside. Mahoganie Williams, who had 21 points in the semifinal win over Three Rivers, made the first two baskets of the game, and the Lady Cardinals outscored the Raiders 26-16 on points in the paint in the first half.
The Lady Cardinals shot 62.5 percent (10 of 16) and hit seven of their first eight shots from the field. Kaye Clark hit a couple of layups and Mikayla Hutchinson added one in the paint for a 6-0 run that put Trinity up 10-6, then Mailyn Wilkerson’s 3-ointer sparked a 7-0 run that helped forge a 19-10 lead and a 21-15 advantage at the end of the period.
Northwest Florida, however, would not go away that easily. Down 25-20 early in the second quarter, the Raiders went on a 7-1 run that included a key putback by Ana Carolina Jesus off the bench, then Masengo Mutanda and Noelani Cornfield added 3-pointers to put the Raiders back in front, 32-29, with 3:58 to play in the half.
But the Lady Cardinals closed the quarter strong with a 9-0 run, including a 3-ointer from Wilkerson from the top of the key and three straight layups to take a 38-32 lead at halftime.
Trinity Valley shot 53.1 percent (17 of 32) from the field in the first half compared to 48 percent (12 of 25) for Northwest Florida.
It also marks the sixth straight year (no tournament was held in 2020 due to COVID-19) that a team form the Panhandle Conference of Florida has won the national title. Northwest Florida, which came in as the No. 5 seed and an at-large team, now joins the ranks of teams like Gulf Coast State, Tallahassee Community College and Chipola College who have brought the crown back to the Sunshine State.
“There are a lot of great coaches and a very big commitment to women’s basketball in the Panhandle Conference,” Walker said. “That comes from the administration. You’ve got to be ready every night when you put them on in the Panhandle. It’s a tough state but it’s Panhandle strong, as we always say.”