TOUGALOO, Miss. – The 2023 GCAC Hope Credit Union Women’s Basketball Championship would be a game to remember as it literally went down to the final seconds of regulation before the title winner would be decided and history would be three-peated. In the end, a putback jumper in the final seconds sealed the contest for the top-seeded Rust College Lady Bearcats over the No. 3 Philander Smith College Lady Panthers, pulling out a 51-50 win on Sunday for their second consecutive conference championship title.
The Lady Bearcats would open the game with tough defense and used back-to-back jumpers from Niya McGuire to take an early lead. However, the Lady Panthers would respond quickly with points from Elaijha Brown to turn the top of the contest into a defensive battle. McGuire was on fire from the opening tip, opening up an 8-2 run for Rust as the quarter moved toward the midpoint. After the media timeout, the Lady Panthers finally started to gain momentum with the help of a quick jumper from the top of the arc by Dasia Turner, cutting the lead to four, 10-6. The quarter would conclude with Philander Smith going on a 5-3 run to finish the quarter with a score of 11-7.
The second frame was similar to the first, as the Lady Bearcats continued their intensive defensive effort toward their opponent, but Philander Smith remained within striking distance. Turner’s shots at the charity stripe would narrow the Lady Panthers’ deficit down to a single field goal. The Lady Panthers struggled to connect on shots under the Lady Bearcats’ tight defense until a contested mid-range jumper by Meleana Williams followed by free throws from First Team All-GCAC selection Myia Yelder would cut the lead to one. The Lady Bearcats worked to answer but an 11-5 run by Philander Smith would move them ahead, 18-16. The final minutes before the half saw the momentum swing back and forth before the Lady Panthers would finish the quarter on a 7-4 run to enter the half leading, 23-20.
After the break, consecutive baskets from both teams kept Philander Smith’s lead to three. Katie Blackmon would hit a free throw to give a narrow advantage to the Lady Panthers, 25-23. They eventually put together a 14-10 run to close out the third quarter with a six-point lead, 39-33.
The final frame would go down to the wire with the title in reach for both squads. They traded triples through the midpoint of the quarter, each looking to create a large scoring gap in their favor. Philander Smith struck first around the five-minute mark, putting together a 5-0 run and forcing a crucial turnover. The flurry saw Rust burn a timeout to get settled. With just 2:15 left in regulation, the Lady Bearcats buried a three-pointer to take the lead, 47-45, bringing Kroger Gymnasium to its feet. However, a trip to the foul line by Lady Panthers’ Turner would be enough to knot the score on the next possession.
Rust College drew up a critical play that drew a charging foul, putting the ball back in its hands with just over a minute left. Philander Smith’s Turner worked hard through traffic under the basket to make a contested putback shot before being fouled and connecting on the resulting free throw. Both teams called for consecutive timeouts, including the Lady Bearcats’ final one, with just 27 ticks left on the clock, and the score at 50-47, to prepare for the end of the contest. A foul by the Lady Panthers sent Rust’s Shuntorri Rodgers to the line where she hit the front of a pair of shots at the stripe. With the teams now separated by a single point, 50-49, and 21 seconds on the clock, Philander Smith called its final timeout with possession of the ball and a path to the title on the line. The Lady Bearcats fouled to extend play but Yelder missed both shots at the charity stripe with 14.8 seconds left. Rust inbounded the ball but made a quick turnover with 11.1 seconds left. Crucial back-to-back turnovers from each team handed the ball back to Rust College for the final possession with 8.4 seconds remaining. A putback jumper by Blackmon put Rust ahead by one, 51-50, which would become the final score as time expired, giving the team its back-to-back-to-back GCAC Tournament title.
Philander Smith saw three players reach double figures led by Turner with 13. She was followed by Williams with 11 points. Yelder posted a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. McGuire was the lone Lady Bearcat in double digits with 14 points. Blackmon collected a game-high 13 boards.
With the victory, the Rust College Lady Bearcats earned an automatic berth to the 42nd annual Women’s Basketball NAIA National Championship Tournament. First and second round games are slated for campus sites, March 7-8. The selection show will be held on Thursday, March 2 at 6 p.m.CT on the NAIA YouTube Channel. For more information, visit http://www.naia.org.