SIOUX CITY, Iowa - The Marian women's basketball team will have an opportunity to defend its title Tuesday night as the Knights defeated No. 1 St. Francis (Ill.) 64-56 in the NAIA National Championship semifinals. The Knights are now 34-3 overall and extended their winning streak to 22 games.
Marian got off to a slow start in the first quarter, allowing St. Francis to jump out to an 6-0 lead. The Knights slowly worked their way back in the game, but USF's Charnelle Reed was too much to handle in the first 10 minutes as she scored eight points, half of her season average. Jessica Almeida struggled in the first quarter, shooting 1-for-4 from the field. Joana Soeiro carried Marian with four points and three rebounds, but Marian shot 4-for-13 as a team from the field.
The second quarter was a different story as Marian heated up from the field, shooting 8-for-14 from the field. Almeida found her groove offensively, scoring eight points in the quarter, including two three-point plays. While Marian went 0-for-5 from 3-point range, the Knights did finish the half with a 22-10 advantage in points in the paint. The close shots helped Marian carry a 27-25 lead to the locker room. St. Francis stayed with Marian because of offensive rebounding. The Saints grabbed six offensive boards in the half and outscored Marian 10-2 in second chance points.
The third quarter was a seesaw affair as the score was tied seven times and the lead changed six times within the 10 minute frame. Marian led 42-40 heading into the fourth as the Saints struggled from the field, shooting just 37 percent from the field. Marian hit its first three of the game during the third quarter when Jenna Sullivan drilled a trey to give Marian the lead at the time.
As foul trouble piled up for St. Francis, Almeida and Soeiro carried Marian through the fourth quarter, but also received some help from freshman Rachel Titzer. Almeida went 7-for-7 at the free throw line in the fourth quarter, while Soeiro went 5-for-7 from the line and added a field goal. However, Titzer provided a momentum-shifting three with 4:25 to play. The freshman buried the trey from the left corner to put Marian up six, which was the Knights' largest lead of the game at the time.
USF cut the lead to two with 3:06 to play, but Almeida and Soeiro hit free throws down the stretch to hold off the Saints. The win gave Marian a shot at a title defense Tuesday night and a win over a top-ranked team for the second-straight season. Almeida finished with a game-high 22 points on 6-for-10 shooting, while Soeiro was also in double figures with 15 points and six rebounds. Sullivan added eight points and nine rebounds and Titzer scored seven points. After her eight point first quarter, Marian held Reed to her season average of 16 for the game. She finished 8-for-17 from the field.
Marian shot 41 percent from the field and overcame a 2-for-13 performance from beyond the arc. St. Francis shot 34 percent and was 5-for-18 from deep. The Saints won the rebounding battle 40-36, while Marian outscored USF 34-24 in the paint.
Marian will face St. Xavier or Concordia (Neb.) in the championship game Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET. A live audio broadcast will be available on MUKnights.com and a live video broadcast will be available on ESPN3.
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