Sioux City, Iowa (VCSU Athletics) -- The Valley City State women’s basketball team battled St. Francis (Ill.) to the end Thursday at the NAIA National Tournament, but the Vikings were unable to overcome a nine-point halftime deficit as their season ended early at the national tournament for the second straight year.
After falling behind 29-20 at halftime, VCSU batted to within three points in the second half but could not complete the comeback and fell 56-47 to the Fighting Saints.
VCSU closed to within three points three different times in the second half, but St. Francis always had the answer. Kaitlin Connor’s putback pulled the Vikings to within 43-40 midway through the fourth quarter but St. Francis responded with two three-point plays that pushed the lead back to 49-42.
Kate Williams’ basket with 2:42 to go brought VCSU within 51-47. The Vikings had two possessions to trim the lead further, but back-to-back turnovers with under two minutes to play dashed VCSU’s hopes of a comeback and St. Francis scored the final five points to clinch the victory.
Valley City State ends the season with a 25-5 overall record, setting the program record for wins in a season. Valley City State was the No. 4 seed in the Duer Bracket at the national tournament – the highest seed ever for the Viking women in their five national tournament appearances. VCSU is now 0-5 at the national tournament.
St. Francis, the No. 5 seed in the Duer Bracket, improves to 21-9 overall and advances to play No. 1 seed College of the Ozarks in the second round Friday. The Fighting Saints are no stranger to advancing at nationals as they went to the semifinals last season as a No. 1 seed.
Valley City State shot 36 percent overall (17-47) Thursday and 86 percent on free throws (12-14). The Vikings finished just 1-for-13 from 3-point range. St. Francis shot 41 percent overall (22-54), 24 percent on 3’s (4-17) and 67 percent at the line (8-12).
St. Francis held a slight 35-31 rebounding advantage, including an 11-8 edge in offensive rebounds. Valley City State had 14 turnovers and five assists, while the Fighting Saints tallied 17 assists and nine turnovers.
Senior Lexi Lennon led the Vikings with 16 points and seven rebounds. Kennedy Henningsgard and Kate Williams both added eight points, and Hannah Schlecht posted five points and five rebounds.
St. Francis had three players in double figures, including 15 from Kamari Jordan and 11 by Paige Gieseke.
After falling behind 10-3 early, the Vikings chipped away to get within three points after the first quarter, 14-11. The Vikings tied the game up for the only time early in the second quarter after Alli Vandal banked in a jumper to lock the score at 16-16 with 7:33 left in the first half. From there, the first half belonged to the Saints. St. Francis scored the next six points as they ended the half with a 13-4 run, taking a 29-20 lead to the locker room.
The Vikings were hampered in the first half by nine turnovers that led to seven points by the Saints. St. Francis also came up with eight offensive boards in the first half, helping them take nine more shot attempts than the Vikings. VCSU was 1-for-7 from 3-point range in the first half, forced mostly into deep, contested looks by the Fighting Saints defense.
VCSU got eight first-half points from both Lennon and Henningsgard. The Vikings played most of the first half without its two starting post players due to foul trouble. Starting center Mackenzie Huber played just four minutes in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. Starting forward Alli Vandal played 10 first-half minutes before picking up her second foul.
St. Francis led by as many as 10 points in the third quarter at 34-24. VCSU would score the next seven points, including five straight by Hannah Schlecht, to close within 34-31. The Saints went back up 41-33 before Viking junior Kate Williams beat the third-quarter buzzer with a driving layup to make it 41-35 after three periods.
Two free throws by Williams and one by Lennon to open the fourth quarter again trimmed the deficit to three points at 41-38 and from there the two teams traded points until St. Francis put the game away in the final minute.
Valley City State graduates three seniors from this year’s team: Lexi Lennon, Kennedy Henningsgard and Paige Meyer.