Cowgirls end tragic season with WNIT title
STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — As Tiffany Bias climbed a ladder to cut down the net after Oklahoma State’s WNIT championship, coach Jim Littell instructed her to take it all down except one last string.
At the end of a season marked by the deaths of head coach Kurt Budke and three others in a November plane crash, he wanted someone special to share in the triumph.
Budke’s widow, Shelley, climbed up to do the last snip.
“I have never been more proud of a group of young ladies than I have this group,” said Littell, Budke’s former top assistant who took over after the crash.
“They set the goal in November to pay honor, and I promise you they paid honor today and in this tournament.”
Toni Young scored 25 points, Tiffany Bias had 17 points and 11 assists and Oklahoma State beat James Madison 75-68 on Saturday to win the program’s first WNIT championship.
Liz Donohoe had her fifth straight double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, and the Cowgirls (22-12) made it through the tournament without trailing in the second half despite a late charge by the Dukes.
Oklahoma State lost Budke and assistant Miranda Serna in a Nov. 17 plane crash that also killed pilot Olin Branstetter and his wife, Paula.
“I think they’re always on our mind, always in the back of our head, just always being there,” Bias said. “I think they were really watching us today. It showed out there on the floor. I think they were both on our minds the whole time.”
Shelley Budke attended the game, along with her children and Budke’s parents, and got hugs from the players and Littell afterward.
“We wouldn’t have had it any other way,” said Littell, who also endured the death of his father during the season. “She’s been a rock for us, the way she’s come to the games and supported the Cowgirls and been there for these kids and been there for the coaches. I commend her for that.
“I don’t know how she does it sometimes the way she’s done it.”
Tarik Hislop scored all 16 of her points in the second half to lead James Madison (29-8), but it wasn’t enough to overcome a 17-point deficit — and all the emotions in Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Hislop hit a 3-pointer to spark an 11-1 comeback, and her runner along the right side of the lane brought the Dukes back within 64-59 with 2:21 to play. She also missed a pair of 3-pointers in the final 2 minutes that could have brought James Madison within three.
Bias and Young, who each make less than two-thirds of their free throws, combined to go 8 for 12 at the foul line to close it out down the stretch.
“There’s a lot of emotion. We understood that coming into the game,” Dukes coach Kenny Brooks said. “We understood the big story and what these kids would be playing for, so we knew it was going to be tough.”
The Cowgirls finished 8-10 in Big 12 play — just like league foes Kansas and Texas, which both made the NCAA tournament — but the RPI hit from a loss to last-place Missouri in the conference tournament likely knocked Oklahoma State into the WNIT.
The Cowgirls found a new level in the postseason, with Young — who had been hampered by her recovery from a broken arm suffered in practice for last year’s WNIT — moving into the starting lineup and doubling her production. The tournament MVP averaged 20.6 points after scoring only 10 per game in the regular season.
Oklahoma State held a 38-20 scoring edge in the paint — outdoing every opponent in that area throughout the tournament. The Cowgirls became the second straight WNIT champ to win the title by playing six straight home games.
Toledo won the WNIT last year.
“I’m so proud of this group, what they’ve accomplished this year,” Littell said. “When you’re talking in terms of the heart, it’s been a long, tough year. When you’re talking in terms of basketball, this group has accomplished so much and gotten so much better.”
Kiara Francisco scored 14 points, and Nikki Newman added 13 for James Madison. Kirby Burkholder, who averaged 18 points through the first five tournament games, had only eight on 3-for-14 shooting with five turnovers.
The Dukes made the NCAA tournament the past two years with high-scoring guard Dawn Evans, the nation’s No. 3 scorer last season and the career scoring leader in the Colonial Athletic Association.
James Madison beat two Big East teams and two Atlantic Coast Conference teams to make it to the finals.
“That was a big statement that we were trying to make, to show them that we belonged in the NCAA tournament,” Brooks said. “Our ultimate goal is to get to the NCAA tournament but this experience here, I think it will show a lot of people in the country that we’re a pretty good basketball team and hopefully we’ll get that opportunity next year.”
The Cowgirls surged ahead to stay about 5 minutes into the game, ripping off a 17-4 run to go up 23-13 after Bias’ layup off a backdoor cut with 7:39 left before halftime.
James Madison closed within four but then allowed a string of nine straight points spanning halftime to fall behind again.
Young had the final two baskets before halftime, including a transition layup just before the buzzer when James Madison failed to hold for final shot, and then added a jumper to start the second half. Donohoe’s 3-pointer from the left wing made it 40-26 in the first minute after halftime.
“They just went on a tear, which really built a big hole for us. We were forced from that point on to try to dig ourselves out, and we did to a certain degree,” Brooks said. “We just didn’t have enough energy down the stretch.”