By Chris Chaney
More than a decade in the making, the UC Clermont Lady Cougars cut down the net at the Division II United States Collegiate Athletic Association National Tournament as champions for the first time in school history on Saturday, March 8.
The lone team still standing when the three-day gauntlet had been run, the Lady Cougars routed, outlasted and came from behind to go 3-0 in Uniontown, Penn. and claim the USCAA Championship trophy.
“There have been so many that came before (this team) that have paid a huge price that never were able to come through and win,” head coach Mike Matthews said. “(Seniors Stacie Lee and Ashley Keith) finish up our dynamic class that we started almost six years ago where we went from 3-27 in the first year in the USCAA and followed that the following year with 27-3. But we were never able to get over the hump at the national tournament.
“It’s really great to finally have our seniors be able to graduate with the satisfaction that they have worked hard for four years and then to culminate it with a national championship.”
The pair of senior First Team All-Americans led the Lady Cougars throughout the tournament; Lee averaged 17.0 points and 13.7 rebounds while Keith went for 15.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists. And it was Lee and Keith whom Matthews praised for keeping the team focused throughout the week.
“In preparing for the tournament, we had two different times during the year that we played in a back-to-back-to-back tournament to get us prepared and see how we reacted,” Matthews explained. “When we went to the Nationals, it’s tough on everybody to play three games in a row, especially with that much emotion, but we had already experienced it twice. The girls were a little more confident and focused.
“We tried to stay with our routine. I have to give most of the credit to our two seniors. They were very frank with the other players about what we had to do and when we had to do it. They exuded so much confidence and knew that the coaches were very well prepared for the next game, so they felt confident in that.”
Garnering the No. 2 overall seed, the Lady Cougars drew the University of Maine-Augusta in the first round, the No. 7 seed. Settling into the stage after a nervy first few minutes, the Lady Cougars’ defensive pressure forced Maine-Augusta into 18 turnovers, which translated into 19 points, and routed their first-round opponent 74-45.
Going up against the defending national champions in the semifinals, Albany Pharmacy, Clermont jumped out to a double-digit halftime lead and held onto it for the majority of the second half.
“We built up about a 15-point lead and it kind of disintegrated in the last five minutes,” Matthews described. “With roughly 20 seconds to go, they tied the game at 66. Then we had a costly turnover stepping in bounds on the inbounds and they got the ball under the basket.
“They missed their shot and Kelsey Finn — there were bodies everywhere — went and got (the rebound) and was fouled. So, with 14 seconds to go, freshman Kelsey Finn has to go to other end and shoot a one-and-one. She made the first free throw. I was going to call timeout after she made the second free throw to set up our defense, but she missed it. It was one of the best misses we’ve ever had. In the process of the scramble for the ball, the clock ran out.”
Clermont escaped with a 67-66 victory and a berth in the national title game, another first for the school, against top-seeded Central Maine.
Coming out of the gate a little sluggish in the final, Matthews counted his team as lucky to be down only three at halftime.
“We knew if we could isolate (Central Maine) in the half court that our talent would overshadow their talent,” Matthews said.
In slowing down the pace and ratcheting up the defensive pressure, the Lady Cougars came out of the locker room with their hair on fire. A 50-percent shooting clip for Central Maine was suffocated down to just 21 percent in the second half as Clermont took their first lead of the game since the 16:39 mark in the first half with 16:03 remaining in the contest and never looked back.
Opening up a 10-point lead by the 8-minute mark, the Lady Cougars watched anxiously as the game clock seemed to wind slower than usual.
“It seems like it takes forever in the last two minutes,” Matthews said, laughing. “The clock doesn’t move fast enough. They’d come down and make a basket and we’d think, ‘is this the start of a run?’ then we would come back and answer with few baskets. (At that point), we would gladly trade baskets from there on out.”
Doing a little better than that, the Lady Cougars wrapped up a 69-51 win when the buzzer sounded. In Clermont’s seventh consecutive USCAA National Tournament appearance, the 2013-14 Lady Cougars reached the school’s first national championship game and won its first national championship, the culmination of 13 years of hard work.
“I did tell our alumni — they were keeping tabs on the game — I told them all that part of their sweat is on that trophy,” Matthews said.
That trophy now sits proudly on display, along with the game ball and net, on the campus of the University of Cincinnati – Clermont College as a reminder of the blood, sweat and tears that countless young women have freely given to place the Lady Cougars among the nation’s elite.