When it was all on the line Sunday in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game, Drake’s Caitlin Ingle knew what to do.
Just like always.
After rising over the top of a Northern Iowa post player to elbow in a buzzer-beating basket to force overtime, the Bulldogs’ senior point guard scored five straight points midway through the extra session in the midst of a 9-0 run which led 20th-ranked Drake to a 74-69 victory over UNI and its first conference tourney title since 2007.
The win secured the Missouri Valley’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament field and was the 22nd consecutive victory for Drake, which now has a win streak topped only by Connecticut’s 107-game streak among NCAA women’s basketball programs.
Ingle scored 15 of her game-high 22 points during the fourth quarter and overtime period of a game which saw the Bulldogs overcome a 13-point second-quarter deficit and a barrage of 11 3-point baskets by UNI.
The Panthers had opened a 63-61 lead when Ellie Herzberg hit the third of her five baskets from the behind the arc with 5.5 seconds remaining in regulation.
Confronted with a defense which denied UNI its plan to feed the ball to Missouri Valley scoring leader Lizzy Wendell on the baseline, Ingle did the only thing she could do.
She went up and over the outstretched arms of the Panthers’ Megan Maahs for the score which sent the game into overtime at 63-63.
“It’s a surreal feeling to hit a shot like that,’’ Ingle said. “It wasn’t what was supposed to happen. It wasn’t the play we called, but two seconds left, all I could do was take a shot. I knew if I hit it, we’d go to overtime and I knew if that happened, we’d be okay.’’
Herzberg, who led UNI with 25 points, opened the overtime with a 3-point basket that the Bulldogs’ Becca Jonas answered before Ingle scored on a drive, was fouled and completed a three-point play with 3:12 left to put Drake in front to stay.
“It was Ingle time,’’ Panthers coach Tanya Warren said. “She knows exactly when to take over and that’s something you can’t teach. That’s a senior knowing when it’s the moment.’’
Ingle led a group of four Bulldogs in double figures, an effort which included 15 points from Becca Hittner, 13 from Wendell and a double-double from Jonas.
The Missouri Valley’s career assists leader dished out seven of them Sunday and grabbed three rebounds.
“We talk all the time about what Lizzy and Caitlin do for our team. Everybody saw it today,’’ Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk said. “Caitlin does care if she has five points and 11 assists or if she scores like she did today. That’s senior leadership. They willed us to this win over a great UNI team that deserves to be in the NCAA tourney. We both deserve to hear our name called (tonight).’’
The Bulldogs (28-4) had to earn the victory in the first championship game match-up between the top two seeds in the Missouri Valley tourney since 2002.
Northern Iowa, which connected on a season-high 15 3-point baskets in its semifinal win over Evansville, buried six of its 11 on Sunday during the first half to build a lead which reached 36-23 on a basket by Madison Weekly with 4:11 remaining in the second quarter.
It was the kind of start the Panthers (24-8) wanted, but a level of performance UNI was unable to sustain.
Drake pulled within 39-29 by halftime and Warren viewed a three-point play by the Bulldogs’ Hittner with 3 seconds left in the second quarter as critical.
“Cutting it to 10 gave them a little momentum and in the third quarter, we didn’t seem to have the same aggressiveness offensively as we did in the first half,’’ Warren said. “Against a team like Drake, you have to continue to score and continue to aggressively look to put points up. We got away from that a bit.’’
UNI hit just one of its first nine shots to open the second half, allowing Drake to eventually tie the game at 42-42 on a basket by Wendell with 3:04 remaining in the third quarter.
“Drake never gives up, no matter how far down they are,’’ said Angie Davison, who scored 17 for the Panthers. “That’s who they are.’’
The Bulldogs moved ahead when Paige Greiner hit the first of two free throws with 2:45 left, missed the second and Wendell scored on a putback to give Drake a 45-42 edge before the lead changed hands 13 more times before the Bulldogs had the chance to hoist a trophy and cut down the nets at the iWireless Center.
“It wasn’t easy, but with UNI we didn’t expect it to be, but we accomplished what we set out to do and that feels awesome,’’ Wendell said.