The Morningside Mustangs (31-2), fresh off a 2015 NAIA DII Women’s National Championship title, four straight GPAC regular season titles and a 2016 GPAC conference tournament title, had little to prove against UC-Merced (11-14). But prove they did. They reminded us all just how ridiculously good they can be, by way of a 93-64 victory in front of a hometown crowd at the Tyson Event Center in Sioux City, Iowa.
Lauren Lehmkuhl led all Mustangs with 17 points 6 of 9 shooting, while Jessica Tietz and Lexi Ackerman added 15 and 12 points of their own.
UC-Merced’s Shelby Howard led all scorers with 18 points on 7 of 23 shooting.
The defending champions came out of the gate a bit sluggish against UC Merced (Calif.), considering their usual, blistering pace. Jessica Tietz, the player that’s been surrounded by injury speculation after a “whiplash injury” in the GPAC Championship game against Briar Cliff (Iowa), scored the game’s opening basket, followed by a steal and bucket by Taylor Bahensky.
UC Merced scored a basket, before Tietz knocked down a free throw and a jumper to put the Mustangs up 8-2 halfway through the quarter. Lexi Ackerman, who was tied with a first-half high of 11 points, knocked down a jumper, before freshman Audra Corbit converted a basket and free throw to go up 18-12.
Tietz opened the second quarter scoring with a bucket, before Ackerman converted a basket and the free throw to put Morningside up nine. Ackerman made a runner and finished the free throw for yet another and one opportunity, before Jordyn Wollenburg made a transition to go up 33-18.
After two more Mustang baskets, sophomore Lauren Lehmkuhl hit a stretch where she rattled off 10 straight points to put the Mustangs up 24. Morningside led 49-26 at halftime.
The second half was much of the same story for both teams. Morningside dominated on both ends, while UC Merced struggled to keep up with the speed and tenacity of the Mustangs.
Tietz nabbed a rebound and finished the basket on the Mustangs’ first two possessions of the second half. Ackerman and Bahensky combined for a couple of transition layups as Morningside hit the 30-point lead mark. Freshman Aubrey Hayes knocked down a couple of three pointers for the Bobcats, but it was too little too late.
Morningside knocked down two more three-pointers and led 77-46 entering the fourth quarter. Morningside played mostly role players throughout the fourth quarter, but still managed to score 93 points. Lehmkuhl called being able to play everybody during a national tournament game is “a statement”.
Morningside Head Coach Jamie Sale knows his team will be favored throughout, but realizes the potential challenges that await the defending champs.
“There are always concerns,” Sale said. “There are a lot of good teams and we know that if we’re going to win that we’re going to have to play our best.”
Morningside will take on No. 4 seed Cardinal Stritch on Friday at 1:45 p.m.