Morningside rallied from an early 19-1 deficit to defeat College of Saint Mary 78-70 and reach the Elite Eight of the NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship tournament.

Taylor Bahensky

Fifth-ranked Morningside survived what could have been a disastrous start and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship tournament with a 78-70 victory against No. 12 College of Saint Mary in Friday’s second round action.

The Mustangs, one of four teams to share this year’s Great Plains Athletic Conference (GPAC) regular season championship, won for the 14th time in their last 15 games and will take a 29-6 record into Saturday’s quarterfinals, where a win against No. 20 Cardinal Stritch would put them in the Final Four for the seventh time since 2004.

Morningside, which won NAIA II National Championships in 2004, 2005, and 2009, improved its all-time record to 30-9 in NAIA national tournament play.

Friday’s victory was far from easy as the Mustangs fell behind by a 19-1 deficit against a College of Saint Mary team that was this year’s Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference (MCAC) regular season and post-season tournament champion. The Flames, who had won 18 of their last 19 games since a December 76-48 loss against NCAA Division I University of South Dakota, bowed out with a 27-6 record.

Freshman guard Taylor Bahensky had her game of the year with a season’s high 18 points off the bench to lead the Mustangs in scoring. Bahensky, who brought a 2.3-point scoring average into the contest, drilled six of eight field goal attempts, including three of four shots from the 3-point arc.

First-team All-GPAC performers Leann Osten and Ashlynn Muhl joined Bahensky in double figures with 16 and 11 points, respectively, followed by Lacey Lehmann and Jordyn Wollenburg, each with eight. Muhl also pulled down nine rebounds and Wollenburg had eight caroms to pace the Mustangs to a 45-32 advantage on the boards.

Deaundra Young, whose career began at the University of Florida where she averaged 4.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in 26 contests during the 2010-11 campaign, was the standout for the Flames. Young finished with game-high totals of 21 points and 12 rebounds for her 15th double-double of the season. Amanda Woodring drilled five of 10 3-point field goal attempts to finish with 17 points, and Jamee Miner added 12.

Woodring added game-high totals of five assists and four steals for a Saint Mary team that entered the contest as the NAIA II national leader with an average of 21.1 assists per game.

The Flames went for a knockout punch early when they raced to a 19-1 lead and forced the Mustangs into an early time out five minutes into the contest. Young, the MCAC Player of the Year and MCAC Newcomer of the Year, did much of the damage with nine of the points.

Saint Mary made eight of its first nine shots in the first five minutes while the Mustangs were in the same type of offensive funk that had plagued them in the opening half of their first round victory against Point Park.

Leann Osten

Morningside was zero for six from the field with four turnovers going into the time out, but came out of the break with back-to-back 3-pointers from Osten go narrow the gap to 19-7.

Osten went on to score 11 points in the first half and Bahensky sparked the Mustangs off the bench with 12 tallies to lead a charge that saw Morningside outscore the Flames 39-23 over the last 15 minutes to close within 42-40 at the intermission. The Mustangs went on a 6-0 run over the last minute of the half and Bahensky figured in four of the scores with a basket off an offensive rebound and a steal that led to a fast break layup by Lehmann to cap the first half scoring.

Morningside began the second half with a successful drive to the basket by Lexi Ackerman that tied the score at 42-42 at the 19:38 mark. Osten struck from 3-point range a minute later to give the Mustangs their first lead of the night, 47-44, with 18:30 left.

A basket by Muhl and a pair of 3-pointers by Lehmann pushed the Mustangs advantage to eight points, 55-47, with 14:37 left to play, but the Flames weren’t finished. Saint Mary struck from 3-point range on shots from Woodring and Tiffany Anzalone on consecutive trips down the floor to trigger a 13-4 Saint Mary scoring run that saw the Flames regain the lead at 60-59 when Young fed Tiffani Lewis for an uncontested layup with 9:14 left in the game.

Morningside answered with a 3-pointer from Bahensky to regain the lead at 62-60 with 8:48 left and ignite a 14-3 scoring run of its own to push the lead into double figures, 73-63, when Muhl made a pair of free throws at the five-minute mark.

The Flames made one last charge and scored six unanswered points before their comeback bid stalled at 73-69 with 2:05 left in the game.