No. 1 Morningside opened defense of its NAIA II National Championship with a 93-64 victory against UC Merced in the first round of the NAIA II Women’s Basketball National Tournament. Photo / Gene Knudsen

Lauren Lehmkuhl

Jessica Tietz

No. 1-ranked Morningside opened defense of the NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship it won a year ago when the Mustangs cruised to a 93-64 victory against unranked University of California Merced in Wednesday’s opening round of the NAIA II National Tournament in Sioux City.

The Mustangs posted their 13th consecutive opening round victory, including a 79-45 drubbing of UC Merced in last year’s first round. Morningside improved its record to 32-2 to set up a matchup against 13th-ranked Cardinal Stritch University (25-8) in a second round game scheduled for Friday at 1:45 p.m.

The Bobcats, the champions of the California Pacific Conference (Cal Pac) with an 8-0 league mark, bowed out of the tournament with an overall record of 11-15.

The first round victory against UC Merced was the Mustangs’ school-record 36th consecutive victory away from home. The Mustangs have not lost a game outside of their own Rosen Verdoorn Sports Center since an 81-72 setback against Cardinal Stritch in the 2014 NAIA II National Tournament Quarterfinals.  

The Mustangs, who won their 13th game in a row, had to overcome a sluggish start against UC Merced before they turned the game into a romp. Morningside led 18-12 after the first quarter before it went on a 31-point scoring spree in the second stanza to take a 49-26 lead into the intermission.

Morningside increased its lead to 32 points, 71-39, on a 3-point field goal by Allison Bachman with 4:35 left in the third quarter and the Mustangs pushed the advantage to 40 points when Jenna Bork struck from 3-point range to make it 89-49 with 6:25 left in the game.

The Mustangs’ biggest question mark going into the contest was the status of Jessica Tietz, their leading scorer and rebounder, who departed with an injury less than two minutes into the game and never returned when Morningside defeated Dakota Wesleyan 80-59 in last week’s GPAC Tournament Championship Game.

Tietz put the worries of the Mustangs’ fans to bed when she sank a baseline jumper for the first basket of the game and dominated play in her 15 minutes and 39 seconds on the court with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. Tietz, the NAIA II national leader in field goal accuracy, made seven of 11 floor shots against the Bobcats to put her season’s shooting mark at a sizzling 64.4 percent.

Lexi Ackerman

Taylor Bahensky

Lauren Lehmkuhl led the Mustangs with a career-high 17 points for her team-high 14th double figure scoring performance off the bench this season. Lehmkuhl drilled six of nine field goal attempts, including three of four 3-point shots.

Lexi Ackerman also scored in double figures with 12 points, followed by Taylor Bahensky and Rachel Housh, each with eight tallies. The eight points by Housh was her second highest scoring total of the season.

Shelby Howard scored a game-high 18 points in her Bobcat senior finale and finished her career as the all-time leading scorer in UC Merced history with 1433 career points. Aubrey Hayes came off the UC Merced bench to make four of five 3-point shots to finish with 14 points. Courtney Danna, this year’s Cal Pac MVP, finished with just six points and a one-for-12 shooting performance from the field.

UC Merced’s Brittany Martinez and Jecenia Trinidad had double figure rebound totals with 13 and 10 caroms, respectively, but as a team the Bobcats were pounded on the boards by a whopping 59-40 rebounding differential.

Tietz led the Mustangs with her 10 rebounds and her understudy in the post, freshman Audra Corbit, contributed a season’s high eight rebounds to the Mustangs’ total.

Morningside’s Brandan Tighe dealt five assists to share game honors with the Bobcats’ Trinidad.

Morningside, the NAIA II national leader in field goal percentage at 47.1 percent entering the contest, connected on 37 of 77 shots for 48.1 percent and pressured the Bobcats into a dismal 29.7 percent shooting display with only 22 hoops in 74 attempts.

The opening round victory was the 498th career coaching triumph for Morningside head coach Jamie Sale, who has guided the Mustangs to four NAIA II National Championships during his tenure with the team. Sale will take a 498-126 career record, including a 419-106 mark at Morningside, into Friday’s second round game against Cardinal Stritch.

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