STEVENS POINT, Wis. – Playing virtually a true road game didn’t faze the Whitman women’s basketball team.
The Missionaries had the task of facing the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater just 150 miles from Whitewater’s home. And it just happened to be in the NCAA Division III Final Four.
Whitman shrugged off an early deficit and maintained at least a seven-point lead the entire second half en route to an 85-70 victory over UW-Whitewater Friday night at Bennett Court at Quandt Fieldhouse.
“I think we basically knew that we were playing a team that was on their home turf, a team that’s obviously very comfortable coming to Stevens Point,” Whitman coach Michelle Ferenz said. “We knew we had an uphill climb, and these guys responded very well.”
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Whitman (31-1) was playing in its first national semifinal in program history, while UW-Whitewater (28-5) got to the national-championship game a season ago, falling to DePauw 69-51.
Missionaries junior guard Heather Johns was exceptional in the win. The West Region Player of the Year scored a career-high 33 points, going 12 for 22 from the field and making three three-pointers
“I had a rough start,” Johns said. “I missed several of my first shots, I don’t know how many. My teammates always do a great job of picking me up. That’s something that’s really special about our team is if someone is having a rough start, they are right there patting me on the back saying, ‘Shake it off, keep shooting. They’re going to fall, they’re going to fall.’ And for me they did.”
Johns’ teammates played big, too, as Sarah Anderegg (21 points, 12 rebounds) and Meghan White (10 points, 12 rebounds) each registered double-doubles. Hailey Ann Maeda added 10 points off the bench.
Whitewater took an early 13-8 lead, but Whitman came back strong with a 19-7 first-half run to go up 27-20.
“Once we settled in a little bit, I thought the boards in the first half were huge, I really do,” Ferenz said.
The Missionaries took a 41-30 lead into halftime.
When UW-Whitewater wanted to make a push in the second half and cut its deficit, Whitman wouldn’t have it. The Missionaries got their advantage to 15, 74-59, with 3:42 remaining as Johns continued her offensive barrage with back-to-back layups.
UW-Whitewater, which was led in scoring by Amy Mandrell with 30 points, shot only 6 for 22 on three-pointers.
The Whitman players’ goal at the end of last year after falling in the Elite Eight was to get to the Final Four this season. With that goal realized, now the Missionaries have a shot at a national title Saturday night against undefeated Fairleigh Dickinson, which defeated Tufts, 42-39, in the other national semifinal.
“I can’t think of any other way to end my career and with my family,” Meghan White said. “Oh, my gosh, it’s going to be so fun tomorrow and I’m so excited and so glad to have this opportunity.”