Lady T-Birds win, reach NJCAA title game
EDUARDO MIRANDA - NEWS-SUN
March 23, 2019
NMJC's Thamires Andrade goes for a layup against Hutchinson Friday afternoon in Rip Griffin Center. The Lady Thunderbirds defeated Hutchinson 60-54 to advance to NJCAA championship game today at 11 a.m. CST.
LUBBOCK – One more win.
The New Mexico Junior College Lady Thunderbirds basketball team is one win away from an NJCAA national championship.
In a physical 40-minute game, the eighth-seeded Lady T-Birds defeated 13th-seeded Hutchinson, Kans., 60-54 in Thursday's women's national tournament semifinal in the Rip Griffin Center on the Lubbock Christian University campus. NMJC faces second-seeded Gulf Coast which defeated 14th-seed Trinity Valley in the other semifinal, 77-67. Today's championship game, which is free to attend, starts at 10 a.m. MST.
Both teams entered the game having played the role of bracket buster with the Lady T-Birds (28-5) knocking off top-seeded Wabash Valley, Ill., and the Lady Blue Dragons (33-3) defeating fifth-seed Odessa, 66-50 to reach the semifinal.
During their run to the Final Four, the Lady T-Birds have enjoyed strong second-quarter performances. But against Hutchinson that did not happen. NMJC was hampered by the whistle and poor defensive performance. As a result, NMJC and Hutchinson were tied at 22 at halftime.
In his 12th year as NMJC's head women's coach, this is Drew Saunders' first championship game in six national tournament appearances.
"That first (half) we played tight," Saunders said. "We turned the ball over a bit. We were rushing everything on offense and we weren't moving the ball. We took hurried shots and we helped them out with that. And we got disengaged a little bit in the second quarter. Second half we came out, moved the ball more and our bigs got more touches and the game changed with that. Our defense again was stellar."
Hutchinson head coach John Ontjes thought the game was physical throughout.
"It was hard to make baskets, both teams defended extremely hard," he said. "I though that they pulled away a little bit in the second half off our missed baskets. Poor transition defense and great transition offense. They really used their strength in the second half, pounding the basketball inside and took advantage inside."
What hurt the T-Birds in the first half was offensive rebounds and second chances. NMJC had several strong defensive possessions that resulted in Hutchinson taking difficult shots either deep into the shot clock or just beating it. After those shots the Lady T-Birds failed to collect the rebound, allowing the Lady Blue Dragons to get another chance. At the half Hutchinson had nine offensive rebounds and eight-second chance points.
NMJC struggled on the offensive end as well, missing 10 layups with four being on fast break. The Lady T-Birds struggled to get open looks on the perimeter or in the post. NMJC wanted to play quick up-tempo game but struggled, committing turnovers instead.
"We were playing soft," Andrade said of the team's first half performance. "Like coach said we were turning over the ball and playing fast. That's not our game. In the second half we listened more and shared the ball more."
In the second half, the Lady T-Birds played to their strengths as the height of Eternati Willock and Sydnee Wynn became a factor that wasn't yet seen. Willock and Wynn combined for six of the team's 22 third-quarter points. Of NMJC's eight third-quarter field goals, seven were layups.
With NMJC's bigs getting touches, the Hutchinson 3-2 zone was forced to collapse and give NMJC players like Myra Caicedo, Andrade, Jurnee President open looks in the perimeter. The T-Birds began to knock down open shots and in turn put their bigs in one-on-one situations off rebounds. The change of offensive strategy allowed the team to build a slim 44-40 lead, after Hutchinson finished the quarter with back-to-back layups.
In the fourth, the Lady T-Birds continued to play to their bigs resulting in multiple trips to the charity stripe. NMJC was an meager 5-for-10 at the free throw line, but it was better than Hutchinson's 3-for-3 effort. The Lady T-Birds attacked the lane with the quickness of Caicedo and former Hobbs standout Amaya Lewis. As they went into the lane it forced two Hutchinson defenders to come out into the perimeter. That allowed Wynn, Willock, and Hawthorne get offensive rebounds in the post area for put backs, foul shots, and on occasion the and-1 opportunity.
Hutchinson never went away keeping NMJC's fans in attendance on the edge of their seat. The Lady T-Birds' defense came up big in final minutes by controlling the defensive rebounds, forcing the Lady Blue Dragons into two-second chance opportunities. Willock, Wynn, and Hawthorne made huge blocks and Caicedo, Andrade, and Lewis made a few steals to keep the Lady Blue Dragons from getting any closer then four points. NMJC's largest lead was 58-49 with 53 seconds left in the game.
After losing the rebounds battle in the first half, the Lady T-Birds outrebounded their opponent 21-13 in the second. NMJC had seven-second chance points to Hutchinson's six.
For Andrade, the Brazilian sophomore is making the most of her last games in a Lady T-Bird uniform.
"For me it's amazing," she said in playing in the championship game. "I'm here in another country in a championship game. I'm so excited and I'm happy. And my team is happy too, we worked hard and we deserve the chance."