To be a champion, you have to beat a champion.
The NIU women’s basketball team took one giant step in that direction last night with a 77-71 overtime victory over two-time national champion Louisiana Tech in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
A Chick Evans Field House crowd of 2,812 saw the Huskies (18-13) come together as one and thwart off any visions of a comeback win the Lady Techsters (20-10) had.
Angela Lockett poured in a team-high 22 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and scored the ever-crucial first two points of overtime. Dianna Wingis turned in a career night with her 22 points and added nine boards.
E.C. Hill hit a double-double with 17 points (two three-pointers) and 10 rebounds. Cindy Conner added 14 points.
Although senior standout Shantel Hardison (game-high 31 points) almost single-handedly led Louisiana Tech back from a 12-point first-half deficit, the “family” of Huskies kept its composure and raced to the NCAA’s Final 32 in the extra period.
“We could have folded,” NIU head coach Jane Albright-Dieterle said. “We made some young mistakes. This is the first time these (young) kids have been in the NCAA Tournament.
“But that overtime came and Angie hit that bucket. It was like, hey, we’re going to keep playing. We’re not ready to quit.”
After trailing by as many as 12 in the first half (32-20), Louisiana Tech made its run in the final 20 minutes of regulation.
A Hardison basket made it 50-50 with 6:59 remaining. NIU never relinquished the lead and appeared to have victory in hand with a 63-58 lead with just 0:36.3 left.
But Tech’s Amy Brown sank three free throws with 0:21.5 remaining after a Conner foul. Hardison then deflected a pass from Wingis in the Huskies’ backcourt and Pam Thomas picked the ball up and hit a four-footer to tie the game at 63 with 10 seconds remaining.
NIU’s shot at victory in regulation failed as Hill travelled with six seconds on the clock. Thomas then missed two shots before the buzzer for the Lady Techsters.
The Huskies seized control early in overtime with a 7-2 run in the first two minutes, highlighted by a Conner steal at halfcourt and lay-in.
For the first time since Feb. 15, the Huskies reached their goal of shooting 50 percent from the floor (.517 on 31-of-60). Although NIU was just 13-of-26 from the line and committed 30 turnovers, rebounding proved vital again (53-49 edge).
The Huskies, who have advanced to the second round for the second time in three years, will look to turn the tables on nemesis Purdue Sunday at 1 p.m. at West Lafayette, Ind.