Oklahoma St. 75, James Madison 68

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.”