MARION, Ind. -- The No. 1-ranked Indiana Wesleyan University women's basketball team put their stamp on the 2011-12 Mid-Central College Conference season tonight with a 68-56 victory over No. 2-seed Bethel (Ind.) College to claim the MCC Tournament Championship for the second straight season.
Following a slow start to the first 10 minutes of the game, the Wildcats dominated the Pilots en route to the fifth MCC Tournament title in program history. IWU has now won the MCC Regular Season Championship, MCC Tournament Championship, and owns the No. 1-ranking in NAIA Division II.
"I'm so proud of our kids, especially the four seniors for helping us go through a tough year," said Indiana Wesleyan head coach Steve Brooks. "This has been a hard year starting with Leah's (Whittaker) death in August and to come through all of this and to get the No. 1 ranking in November and to hang on to it is really a good testimony to our seniors for the leadership they provided."
Leah Whittaker was a freshman on last season's team and discovered she had Stage 4 liver and colon cancer in December, 2010. Eight months later she lost her battle with cancer in August, 2011.
But on February 28, 2011, Leah was the first Wildcat up the ladder to cut the net after IWU won the 2011 MCC Tournament Championship. Tonight, her father Dennis Whittaker, was the first up the ladder to cut the net.
"We wanted him to be here tonight," said Brooks. "We've been saying ‘30' all year to break a huddle and she's not very far from our hearts. Last year we wanted to win so she could climb the ladder and this year we wanted to play so Mr. Whittaker could be here to be a part of this as well."
Senior center Krystal Stoneking added, "We had Leah go up last year and we wanted to get another Whittaker up the ladder this year."
To get up the ladder Indiana Wesleyan needed to weather a rough start to the game. Senior guard Ashley Brooks hit the first Wildcat field goal with a 3-pointer seven and a half minutes into the game. Fortunately for Indiana Wesleyan the defense was playing superb and that shot tied the score at 5-5.
Bethel (22-10) tied the score 7-7 at exactly the midway point of the first half when Sarah Clark scored in the paint. That would be the last time Bethel would be so close.
"We felt like we were getting good shots and we were just missing. Some of it was probably nerves but we needed to come out and that was my biggest fear before the game," said Brooks. "I told the four seniors please don't want this so much that you play tight. Come out and compete like you have all year. And once we got by that first 10 minutes we just started playing basketball."
After a 7-7 score through the first 10 minutes of the half Indiana Wesleyan outscored Bethel 30-15 in the final 10 minutes to take a 37-22 halftime lead. In that stretch Indiana Wesleyan produced a 20-4 run to gain their largest lead of the half at 31-14. Senior guard Stephanie Burtch bookended the scoring in the run and scored 11 points in the stretch.
"Stephanie Burtch hit some 3's, Rachel Steinbarger hit a 3, we got some inside stuff and Paige Smith came in again and gave us an awful lot of energy," stated Brooks. "So when you have that kind of effort going good things happen."
Indiana Wesleyan (31-2) would stretch their lead to as high as 20 (50-30) near the midway point in the second half. Bethel cut the deficit to 11 with 2:20 to play but would get no closer.
Five Wildcats reached double figures tonight led by Stoneking's 16 points and nine rebounds. Burtch hit three 3-pointers to finish with 13 points, junior forward Paige Smith collected a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, Brooks contributed 11 points, five boards, and four assists, while junior guard Claire Freeman added 10 points, six rebounds, and five assists. Senior guard Rachel Steinbarger chipped in with seven points and four rebounds.
"It meant a lot," Stoneking said about winning the MCC title in her final game in Luckey Arena. "It's a special day, especially in our last home game here. It's pretty emotional. It's the best, I wouldn't want it any other way."
Ashley Brooks added, "It was a goal from the beginning and we got it accomplished."
Indiana Wesleyan looks primed to be the top seed at the NAIA Division II National Championship next week in Sioux City, Iowa. IWU has been the No. 1-ranked program since the first regular season poll in November. The only other season Indiana Wesleyan was the tournament's No. 1 seed was in 2006-07 when IWU went 38-0 en route to the national championship.
"These were tournament games for us in that regard," said Brooks. "To hold on to that No. 1 ranking and get a top seed out there."
"We're all ready for it," said Burtch. "Nationals is just a completely different experience. Obviously we're going to go out there to win it because that is our goal."
"We definitely want to go out with a bang," added Steinbarger. "We want the legacy of this senior class to be something really great. I feel so far it's been right there but we want to make it that much better."
"It's been awesome," continued Ashley Brooks. "We've worked really hard from our freshman year on. For this to be our senior year there's just no words to describe it."
Lost but not forgotten in the mix of tonight's MCC Tournament Championship victory was a personal milestone for Brooks at Indiana Wesleyan. In just his 13th season at Indiana Wesleyan Brooks won his 350th game at the helm of the program. That amounts to an average of 27 wins per season.
"It's a credit to these girls," said Brooks. "They're an amazing group and they play so hard and put up with me."
Indiana Wesleyan now begins preparation for the national championship. The tournament bracket will be announced on Wednesday with First Round games starting the following Wednesday and Thursday. The tournament runs March 7-13 in Sioux City, Iowa.
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