SIOUX CITY, Iowa – In a city where the Concordia University Women’s Basketball program has forged countless memories, it nearly put together a comeback for the ages. Tuesday (March 2)’s GPAC tournament title clash had all the drama anyone could have asked for in a pulse-pounding battle that took every bit of 40 minutes to decide. Ultimately, Sophia Peppers’ layup with 0.8 seconds left lifted seventh-ranked Morningside to a 67-65 victory.
Fifteenth-year Head Coach Drew Olson has led the program to six of its seven all-time GPAC tournament championships. The result stings, but the Bulldogs (20-8) likely gained even more confidence from what unfolded.
Said Olson, “We showed a ton of fight. This team has really grown. We've developed that toughness and togetherness. That was awesome to see ... Morningside runs a great program. (Morningside coach) Jamie (Sale) and I have been battling for many years. We have a lot of respect for each other.”
The backcourt of Taylor Cockerill and Taysha Rushton showcased big-time shot making while torching the nets at Allee Gym. Rushton finished with 24 points while knocking down 6-of-10 attempts from 3-point range. Meanwhile, Cockerill poured in 21 points while drilling 4-of-5 shots from long range. Rushton poured in 19 of her points in the first half before Cockerill rained in 19 in the second half.
Without Rushton’s hotter-than-the-surface-of-the-sun second quarter, Concordia would have been dead in the water. Rushton wouldn’t allow it. The Lubbock, Texas, native dropped home five treys in the quarter, including four in the last four minutes of the half. That 36-15 deficit turned into a much more manageable disadvantage of 38-31 by halftime. Cockerill carried the torch from there and gave the Bulldogs their first second-half lead (53-52) via a three-point play early in the fourth quarter.
“Taysha and TC are really special,” Olson said. “What Taysha showed tonight was incredible. She willed our team back when we were down. Both her and TC continued to find ways to keep us in the game. Collectively, other people really contributed to it too with their defensive toughness and a couple of good plays offensively … Taysha and TC were awesome.”
Neither team led by more than three points in a fiercely intense fourth quarter that saw both sides trade blows. Down the stretch, Taylor Rodenburgh hit two massive jumpers to turn a three-point Mustang deficit into a two-point lead (65-63) in the final seconds. Cockerill responded with a driving layup to even things up once again. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they fell victim to a last-second game winner for the second-straight meeting with Morningside (26-2).
In a season affected by COVID-19 in obvious ways, this atmosphere was about as good as it gets. Behind a loud home crowd, the Mustangs (14-0 at home) had just enough to hold off Concordia in a matchup of the league’s top two seeds. Peppers led her side with 16 points while McKenna Sims added 15. The Bulldogs managed to limit mega star Sierra Mitchell to five points on 2-for-14 shooting from the floor.
Some of that defensive success could attributed to Rushton, who is more than just a sharpshooter. Rushton and company did an admirable job of holding Morningside to 41.8 percent shooting after a hot early start. A rarity this season, the Bulldogs finished in the red in turnover margin (-2) and also got outrebounded, 38-32.
Cockerill added six rebounds, three assists and three steals to her line. Mackenzie Koepke pulled down 10 rebounds and blocked a pair of shots. In addition, Rylee Pauli chipped in with six points, four assists and four rebounds and Bailey Conrad notched six rebounds and three assists.
Rushton didn’t look much like a freshman during Concordia’s GPAC tournament run. She averaged 21.3 points while going 12-for-24 from 3-point range in conference postseason play. She did her best to keep alive the program’s streak of GPAC tournament success. The Bulldogs had won 14-straight GPAC postseason contests.
Concordia had already secured an automatic bid to the national tournament prior to tipoff on Tuesday. The Bulldogs will make a 10th-straight national tournament appearance and the 20th in program history. Opening round assignments will be announced at 6 p.m. CT on Thursday when the NAIA holds its women’s basketball selection show.
Said Olson, “We feel really good. We’re confident and we know we can play with anybody. We’re excited that we’re still playing. We’re ready to play another team right now.”