Mar 15, 2022

Missouri Western stuns Fort Hays State in Central Region title, Griffons Elite 8 bound

Posted Mar 15, 2022 3:08 AM
Missouri Western women's basketball - 2022 Central Region champions. Photo by Ryan Menley.
Missouri Western women's basketball - 2022 Central Region champions. Photo by Ryan Menley.


St. Joseph Post

HAYS, KS - Missouri Western did the unexpected on Thursday and Friday, routing No. 2 seed Southwestern Oklahoma State and then beating No. 6 Nebraska-Kearney in the semifinals after losing to the Lopers twice earlier this season.

On Monday, the Griffons did the unthinkable.

Missouri Western (24-9), down 20-7 at the end of one, and down 38-17 with two minutes left until halftime, slowly chipped away, took their first lead with 3:04 remaining in the game and held on for a 70-69 win over No. 1 seed and No. 4 ranked Fort Hays State (30-4) in the Central Region championship at Gross Memorial Coliseum on Monday night.

The Griffons are Elite Eight bound for just the third time in program history and for the first time since 1995.

"I mean, it was just unbelievable," coach Candi Whitaker said of the comeback victory. "I don't even know how it happened, to be honest. Other than our team is so gutsy and I'm  so proud of their fight."

Down 38-23 at the break, Western slowly chipped away at their deficit, outscoring Hays 22-11 in the third quarter and only trailing 49-46 entering the fourth.

Hays, who's now 0-3 in regional final games all time, did all they could to stay ahead, hitting 12-of-15 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, but Western shot 8-of-14 from the field in the fourth and made 7-of-9 free throws themselves to continue closing the gap.

A big key to closing that gap was Jaelyn Haggard. The graduate student guard, Northwest Missouri State transfer and St. Joseph native scored 12 of her game-high 19 points in the fourth quarter alone on two huge three-pointers.

She was also 6-for-6 at the free throw line in the fourth quarter. After Haggard's jumper tied the game at 60 with 3:43 left, she had the ball again on the next possession, and got fouled hard on a shot attempt by Hays' Lauren West.

After the foul was called, West spiked the ball hard on the floor, resulting in a technical foul. Haggard shot two free throws for the shooting foul, and got to shoot two more due to the technical.

Haggard made all four of those shots, and Western led 64-60 with 3:04 left.

"Every possession at that point was extremely critical," she said. "So, we knew once we had the lead, they're an extremely tough team as well, so you can't let up at any moment. We just tried to run with it as long as we could and continue to be tough."

Haggard came up big again with 1:18 remaining, hitting an NBA-range three to put the Griffons up 67-64.

Just over a minute later, Hays' Katie Wagner got a basket and one coming out of a Tiger timeout. Wagner's free throw put Hays ahead 69-68 with 14 seconds remaining.

Coach Whitaker immediately called timeout after that, giving the Griffons the ball in the half-court. Brionna Budgets, the Central Region tournament MVP, who had been scoreless for the first 39:52 of Monday's game, drove the baseline and put up a fairly open layup with eight seconds left, giving the Griffons a 70-69 lead.

Hays called a timeout themselves, got the ball to freshman guard Kate Dilsaver on the left baseline in the closing five seconds. Dilsaver's floater was well off the mark, Western's Trinity Knapp rebounded as time expired, giving the Griffons another historic win in an unforgettable week.

"Really just down the stretch, we did a great job of executing," Whitaker said. "Bri (Budgets') bucket obviously wins the game for us, but we got a defensive stop at the end to win it.

"Just, just...kind of lost for words, but just super proud and quite emotional with the swing we had in that game."

Budgets was named the tournament's most outstanding player, scoring a combined 38 points in the three games in Hays. Haggard and senior Corbyn Cunningham were named to the all-Central Region team.

Cunningham had 15 points for Western on Monday after scoring 12 in each of the first two games of the tournament.

Whitaker gave her seniors a ton of credit after Monday's win, including Mychaell Gray, who had six points and three boards off the bench against the Tigers.

"You just love to watch kids play like it is their last," Whitaker said, "and those three (seniors) played like it. Couldn't be more proud of them."

Missouri Western advances to the Elite Eight for the first time in 27 years, and they'll play next Monday in at the Birmingham CrossPlex. Their opponent and game time is still to be determined.

The teams who advance to the Elite Eight will be assigned new seeds.

But, what a week. It's Western's first win against Fort Hays State in Hays since 2007, their first win over a top five team since 2016 and their first over a top 10 since 2020.

Missouri Western's last three wins over top 10 teams have all been against Fort Hays State.

Again, this current run is incredible. Six wins last year - Elite Eight this year. A roster with 14 underclassmen, including four true freshmen. A team that lost five of its last seven in the regular season.

It's a Griffon team that went 1-6 against the top three teams in the MIAA in the regular season and conference tournament combined.

Now, here they are, representing the MIAA in the Elite Eight - one win away from their second ever Final Four appearance and two wins away from their first ever national championship game appearance.

Special. Historic. Real. In some ways unimaginable. And pretty fun to witness.

"We are really playing great basketball and it's the most important thing this time of year," Whitaker said. "This team is really having a ton of fun. I mean, they are just having a lot of fun. So, excited we get to spend another week together and that we still have the opportunity to play basketball." 

"That's a statement for the kind of team that we are," Haggard added. "We came to compete, and right now, we're peaking. If I'm other teams, I'd be scared to play us. I've said that all week. So, we're going to go to Alabama and keep fighting and keep playing tough and see how long we can make the season go."

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