For the second time in three seasons, the Hutchinson Community College women's basketball team will play for a national championship.
Mired in desperate foul trouble on Friday night - eventually losing Briana Starks and leading scorer Jamie Patrick to fouls - the Lady Dragon bench players came up huge and helped propel No. 3 Hutchinson to a 78-71 victory over second-seeded Chipola College in the semifinals of the 2014 NJCAA Women's Division I National Tournament at the Bicentennial Center.
Now 35-0, the Lady Dragons will get a rematch of the 2012 national championship game with top seed and No. 1 ranked Trinity Valley (35-1) at 7 p.m. Saturday. The Cardinals devoured Central Arizona 82-63 in Friday's first semifinal on Friday.
"It feels great to have another shot to play in this game," said HCC head coach John Ontjes, whose team tied a school record for winning streaks with their 36th consecutive victory. "We played in it two years ago and it's difficult to get in that game. I'm thrilled to get an opportunity tomorrow night."
After two slow starts and come-from-behind victories to open the tournament, the Lady Dragons played a near-flawless first half in building a 38-17 lead. The lone flaw came in the form of Patrick, HCC's leading scorer who picked up her third personal foul with 11:15 remaining in the opening half.
That's where the bench started to pick up for HCC.
Freshman Chelsea Dewey scored seven first half points, hitting a floater in the lane and later sinking a baseline 3-pointer to help HCC build a 24-7 lead with 7:38 to play in the opening half.
Then it was freshman Sydney Benoit's turn. With Chipola primed for a second-half rally, Benoit scored seven of her career-high-tying 10 points in the second half. Benoit had three offensive rebounds, converting them into four second-chance points.
All told, the Lady Dragon bench produced 35 points and it helped HCC out-score Chipola 19-10 with Patrick on the bench.
"Our reserve kids had huge minutes, huge plays," Ontjes said of the bench players. "Those kids came through when we needed them. I think all of our kids are up to the challenge when their name is called. They played with confidence and did what they needed to do to help us win the game."
Added Benoit: "I just came off the bench and get rebounds and score when I could. We had some people in foul trouble, so we had to step up there and take their spot. Jamie's a big part of our team, so it's kind of nerve-racking, but we all just tried to step up and fill her roles."
Friday's second semifinal was two completely difference halves between Hutchinson and Chipola (33-2).
The first half was all Lady Dragons as they shot 66.7 percent (16 of 24) and limited their turnovers to six. HCC's No. 5 nationally ranked defense, flummoxed the Indians, holding them to a season-low 17 points by forcing 12 turnovers and holding Chipola to 7 of 24 overall shooting (29.2 percent). HCC had leads as large as 22 points and led 38-17 at halftime.
Turnovers and fouls became an issue for Hutchinson in the final 20 minutes. HCC had four turnovers on its first five possessions of the second half and Chipola started to chip away at the large deficit. The Dragons had 14 second-half turnovers that led to 15 Chipola points.
Also, the Indians started to cash in on offensive rebounds to the tune of 14 second-chance points. The Lady Dragons lost Starks to fouls with 7:42 to play and Patrick fouled out of a game for the first time this season with 2:33 remaining and HCC holding a 66-56 lead.
"They hit shots at the end with our hands in their face," Dewey said. "We knew they were going to run off double screens to get their 3-point shooters open. It was a little nerve-racking, but we hit our free throws."
Chipola wouldn't relent and kept inching closer and closer, making it a one possession game at 74-71 on a Rahni Bell 3-pointer with 30.5 seconds left. Hutch hit 20 of 26 second-half free throws to punch its championship game ticket, hitting 7 of 8 from the stripe in the final 90 seconds of the game.
"We just remained calm, stayed focused and hit our free throws," said Jen'Von'Ta Hill, who was 8 of 8 from the line in the second half.
"It was good we had our 20 point lead in the first half," Benoit said. "We just tried to maintain what we were doing and not freak out when they got close to us."
One night after setting the Lady Dragon career scoring record, Patrick on Friday became HCC's single-season scoring record holder, surpassing Natasha McAtee (1992). Despite the foul trouble, Patrick had a game-high 19 points, hitting 8 of 12 field goals, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range. Patrick played 24minutes, 27 seconds.
Purcell posted her third-straight double-double and 18th of the season with 18 points and 10 rebounds. She was 5 of 9 shooting and a solid 8 of 11 from the foul line. Purcell added six assists, two steals and a blocked shot.
Hill was 8 of 10 overall from the line and finished with 16 points, five rebounds and five assists. Hill tied Ellington Spears (1989-91) for second on the career assists list with 320 assists.
The Lady Dragons shot 56.8 percent (25 of 44) from the field, hitting 4 of 9 from 3-point range and 24 of 34 from the free-throw line. Hutchinson outrebounded Chipola 37-33 and survived 20 turnovers to advance to the title game.
Briana Wright had a double-double and scored 10 of her 13 points in the final 10 minutes of the game for Chipola. She also had 12 rebounds. Taliah Moore had 15 points, Evelyn Akhator had 12, Tiffany Lewis had 11 and Khadijah Ellison had 10 points for the Indians.
Chipola shot 37.1 percent (23 of 62), hitting 8 of 28 from 3-point range and 17 of 24 from the free-throw line.
With the victory, Hutchinson captured its 850th all-time victory. Now on Saturday, the Lady Dragons bid for the program's first national championship and sixth national title overall. HCC hasn't won a national team championship since 2001 when it won a women's cross country national crown.