Lemont Furnace, PA - The 2017-18 season came to an end on Saturday in the USCAA Division II National Championship game. For 2nd seeded Johnson & Wales, it proved to be a fitting end to a tremendous season, as the Wildcats defeated the defending national champion and top seeded Central Maine Mustangs 75-64 to secure the school's first national title in any sport.
JWU (22-4) came out on fire in the first quarter, as they knocked down 10 of their 16 shots from the field. Many of those were right around the rim, as the Wildcats were able to pound the ball inside or drive to the basket for layups. They also forced 6 Central Maine (30-2) turnovers that led to easy fast break baskets in building a 23-13 lead.
The teams treaded water for much of the second period before Johnson & Wales attempted to further themselves from the Mustangs. A Justice Wallace layup with three minutes remaining in the half gave the Wildcats their largest lead of the half at 39-21. Central Maine rallied in those final 3 minutes to trim the lead to 13 at the break, 41-28 behind Jane Lester's 8 points and 6 rebounds off the bench.
An 8-2 spurt out of the locker room, capped by a Chase Muhammad three pointer gave JWU a 19 point advantage, 49-30 halfway through the third stanza. The Mustangs, true to their championship pedigree, began to show signs of life at this point. They closed the quarter on a 17-5 run to pull within seen at 54-47. Lester and Alex Bussey again picked up the scoring for Central Maine, as 1st Team All-American Brooke Reynolds was held scoreless on the afternoon. She did contribute 10 rebounds and 7 assists to the Mustang's cause, however.
The Wildcats moved the lead back out to eleven in the first few minutes of the fourth quarter. Central Maine then mounted one final charge. After missing 14 of their first 18 attempts from three point land, they connected on two in a row, along with two other long jump shots to suddenly pull within one point at 62-61 with 4:38 remaining. Johnson & Wales responded with 6 points on their next two possessions, a Muhammad three and an Ineesha Hankerson layup and free throw to go back up by six at 68-62. The Mustangs ran out of gas and time at this point, missing 4 of the last 5 shots while committing 3 turnovers as the Wildcats were able to seal the 75-64 win at the free throw line.
Muhammad led all scorers in the game with 24 points, to go along with 3 assists, 4 steals, and 2 blocks. Ineesha Hankerson scored 16 points, and grabbed 7 rebounds. Jaquana Pauling tallied 10 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in her final career game for JWU. Vanderia Shackleford, also playing her final game in a Wildcat uniform, had 11 points and 7 rebounds.
Jane Lester led the Mustangs in scoring with 16 points, while collecting 9 rebounds. Kristen Huntress was the only other Central Maine player to reach double figures with 12 points.
Hankerson was named the Tournament's Most Valuable Player. She scored 48 points and grabbed 29 rebounds in the three games. Chase Muhammad was also named to the All-Tournament team. Muhammad scored 59 points, collected 11 rebounds, and recorded 10 steals during the tournament. They was joined on the All-Tournament team by Warren Wilson's Danasia Dumas, Villa Maria's Nina Grey, and Brooke and Jordyn Reynolds from Central Maine.
Johnson & Wales ended the season on a 14 game winning streak. During the streak, they won their games by an average of 22.5 points in that stretch.