For the second time in three years, the Cyclones (32-1) are headed to Arkansas to compete in the NJCAA Division II Women's Basketball Championship. Moraine Valley defeated McHenry County College (22-10) 89-70 in the Region IV finals last night to advance to the Big Dance.
Of all the teams the Cyclones could have faced in this latest matchup, Head Coach Delwyn Jones did not want to face the Scots. Both times they competed this season, the Scots were one of the few teams to give Moraine Valley a hard time. Their physical force and strategic coaching were a concern, but the Cyclones persevered.
"I didn't want to play McHenry, but we played well. McHenry fought hard. I know they don't back down, but we fought. I'm so proud of my players," Jones said.
It took a team effort to earn this victory, and each player had her moment to contribute. The Scots held brief leads and ties, but a three-pointer by Kate Ruzevich helped her team go up 20-14 at the end of the first quarter. McHenry would not back down, however, going into the second quarter countering every Cyclone point. Ashley Hunter helped her crew jump ahead 42-35 with two threes in the last 13 seconds of the first half.
As they've done all season, the Cyclones surged in the third quarter, scoring 31 to the Scots' 13 points. Within three minutes, they had extended their lead to 20. Elizabeth Coffey was getting fired up and aggressive under the basket, and Hennessey Handy glided her way to the basket while Hunter and the Ruzevichs fired off more three-pointers. Everyone off the bench had their own drive to make this win count. Despite some technical fouls in the last four minutes of the game from the Scots and Kate Ruzevich, the region championship was all but sealed.
"The beginning was tough, but we know we needed to turn it up, kick it up. We know we're better than anyone in the region. We had high adrenaline in the second half. Everybody came together," Handy said. "This [championship] is the best thing to ever happen to me. I just want to cry but can't because my adrenaline is still going. The last college I played at I wanted to quit, and now look where I am. I'm lost for words. This is a great feeling."
Immediately following the game, awards were given to All-Tournament team players Handy (19 points, seven assists, seven steals) and Julia Ruzevich (13 points, eight rebounds), Tournament MVP Hunter (30 points, five rebounds) and Region IV Coach of the Year Delwyn Jones. Also worth noting is Kate Ruzevich's double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) as well as the seven rebounds each from Destiny Thames and Coffey.
"This is so memorable because it's always something you want to accomplish with amazing teammates and coaches," said Julia Ruzevich. "It's just surreal."
"I'm still in shock. It's an amazing feeling to know we got it done. Last year hurt. I was really focused in this game. I didn't want the [disappointed] feeling of last year [losing in the semifinals]," Hunter said. "It's unexplainable to be the MVP. I'm just playing basketball."
The Cyclones continued their 31-game winning streak and will compete at the national tournament in Harrison, Arkansas, starting March 20, 11 a.m., against Lackawanna College.
"I say this every time, but these players have great character and work hard. It's so fun when you have talent. They're fun to work with, and that's how we got better. We're a much better team than we were at the start of the season. This is a great team with great skill, coachability, unselfishness and a great attitude. We only have a few sophomores and then transfers who came in and brought maturity. That goes a long way. We're playing fast and getting open shots," Jones said. "This is the second time around for me going to nationals, so now I have an idea what to expect. We can challenge any team we face at nationals. We'll represent Region IV well. All the teams will be nervous. It's the same game just in a different state."