Photo by Tim Tushla/Westmont Athletics

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — When the clock hit zero for the final time in Tyson Events Center on Tuesday, confetti fell from the rafters and the Warriors of Westmont embraced each other with joy in celebration of winning the NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship.

The Warriors defeated top-seated Thomas More of Kentucky (29-2) by a score of 72-61 to earn their second national championship in program history.

“I am so overwhelmed and filled with so much joy,” said junior guard Stefanie Berberabe, who was named the Tournament MVP. “I am grateful that we got this opportunity to come out to nationals, to Iowa, despite COVID. We are just so happy.”

Berberabe was joined on the All-Tournament First Team by Iyree Jarrett with Lauren Tsuneishi earning Second Team honors.

Berberabe and Jarrett each scored 23 points for the Warriors with Tsuneishi adding another 14.

The Warriors found themselves in a bit of a hole midway through the first quarter. Trailing 15-8, Westmont head coach Kirsten Moore called a timeout.

“A staple of this team is that we don’t get flustered,” asserted Moore. “I called the timeout and said, ‘We need to regroup, focus on our defense and focus on our rebounding,’ and they did it. We were able to get to within one possession by the end of the quarter. Their ability to respond, stick together and not get flustered is a sign of a veteran team.”

Westmont went on a 7-2 run the rest of the opening frame by getting a three-point field goal from Tsuneishi and a jumper and two free throws from Berberabe.

“We thrive in situations where we are down,” explained Berberabe. “We are good at comebacks. We just needed to focus on defense and rebounding and everything else came together. We all attacked, using our athletic ability to make things happen on the court both defensively and offensively.”

“Thomas More was really hot from all over the place,” said Tsuneishi of the Saints’ fast start. “Saying, ‘Defense wins championships’ has been so critical in our program. It came down to getting a stop. Once we got one stop, it gave us more confidence to get the next one and the next one. That came with a lot of great rebounds. Gabriella Stoll had some monster rebounds as well as Syd and Kaitlin. Everyone did great on the boards. That was key in how we pulled it out.”

Larson tallied 13 rebounds for the Warriors while also notching four assists and two steals. Stoll added seven rebounds and nine points on a trio of three-pointers.

Down 22-19 midway through the second quarter, Westmont produced a 15-6 run to take a 34-28 lead into the locker room. Stoll made two buckets from beyond the arc during the run and Jarrett added another. Jarrett also contributed a two-point field goal as did Tsuneishi and Berberabe.

The third quarter was a low-scoring affair with the Saints nudging out Westmont 13-12. Jarrett hit a pair of long-distance buckets to help the Warriors maintain a 46-41 advantage headed into the final frame.

On the Warriors’ first possession of the second half, Stoll delivered her third three of the night, putting Westmont up 49-41. The Saints’ Summer Secrist scored on a pair of jumpers in the paint to pull within four before another basket by Berberabe restored Westmont’s margin to six (51-45).

With seven and one-half minutes remaining in regulation, Taylor Clos landed a three-point field goal to make it a three-point game. However, Tsuneishi connected on back-to-back three-pointers, giving Westmont a nine-point lead (57-48) with six and one-half minutes remaining.

The Saints cut the lead to five (57-52) when Clos hit a jumper in the paint with 4:44 left on the clock, but back-to-back jumpers by Berberabe and Jarrett restored Westmont’s lead to nine (61-52) with 3:47 to play. Seconds later Clos responded with another three, but that was as close as Thomas More would get. Westmont closed out the game on an 11-6 run to secure the national championship trophy and banner.

“It feels amazing,” said Moore after the game. “I am so happy for these young women because of how hard they have worked to get to this point. Day in and day out, they have been willing to do the little things – whatever was in their control.

“There were a lot of things that were out of their control. However, whatever was in our control to do, we tried to make a commitment to do that – sandbag workouts in their backyards or basements, running on asphalt because tracks were not open.

“These women continued to put in the work so that if we had the opportunity to compete, we would be able to be at our best. That is what you saw throughout this whole tournament. Different people at different times stepping up. I am so proud of them for the relentless and fearless approach to what was before them.”

With this year’s five wins in tournament play, the Warriors now have an NAIA Tournament record of 23-13 with two national championships. Dating back to January of 2020, Westmont has defeated the last 27 NAIA teams it has faced.

“I don’t think I’ve had the chance to process what is happening,” said Tsuneishi, who was on the 2018 national runner-up team as a freshman. “I’m so blessed to be on this team and be in this program for all these years. I’ve learned so much from all the Warriors that have been before me. I am so grateful to do this with this team. They are so special as individuals and together we have learned to love each other so well through the game of basketball. It has been so beautiful and evident in everything that we do.

“I love this team so much,” expressed Tsuneishi, whose collegiate career has come to an end. “I want to say thank you (to the team) for pouring into me and always building me up and making me better. They have been my best friends throughout college and I know I will leave this team and this school with lasting relationships that will mean way more than winning a championship. That is so much better.”

The Warriors returned to Santa Barbara, carrying with them a banner, several trophies, a game ball, two nets, a bit of confetti, a sense of gratitude, lasting friendships and the joy of accomplishing together the goal of winning a national championship.

— Courtesy Westmont Athletics

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