Fourth-seed Carroll (Mont.) and fifth-seeded Westmont battled in an up-tempo, hard-fought contest in the opening round of the NAIA National Tournament in Jackson, Tenn. At the final buzzer, however, the No. 19 Warriors found themselves two points short from advancing to the second round. Carroll’s 61-59 win brought an end to Westmont’s season a bit earlier than expected.

“It’s really sad for the seniors,” head coach Kirsten McKnight said, “because they have been such an example of leadership with their hard work and work effort.”

Senior Stephanie Anderson finished her career with 14 points on six-of-nine shooting and displayed incredible hustle, while fellow seniors Brittney Crawford and Kara Reynolds each made significant defensive contributions for Westmont (21-9).

“From the opening tip, Steph was just great,” McKnight said. “Her defensive intensity and her attacking offense were incredible. She attacked the rim and made great plays. I am very proud of the confidence with which she played. Her physicality on defense was huge.

“The same is true of Kara and Brittney. Those three have led this team in work effort.  As we move on from here and, hopefully, find success in future national tournaments, that is something we will take from those seniors and they will be with us through having left that legacy of their intensity and hard work.”

Sophomore guard Amber Stevens led the offensive effort for the Warriors, tallying 15 points while dazzling the crowd with her acrobatic layups. The former Dos Pueblos High star also recorded six assists, seven rebounds and two steals. Freshman forward Angel Blanco recorded 11 points, making five of eight shots from the floor. She also pulled down three boards.

The Warriors fell behind, 16-8, in the first half but battled back and tied the score, 28-28, with 1:53 to play in the first frame. Stevens evened the score by driving the lane for a layup. Carroll’s Hannah Heidenreich responded with a layup at the other end to account for the 30-28 halftime score.

The second half was an intense back-and-forth battle with eight ties and neither team going up by more than two points for the first 10 minutes. Carroll (26-5) never led by more than two points in the second half.

With Westmont down by two, 46-44, with 9:20 to play, junior guard Lindsey Chessum hit an eight-foot jumper to start a seven-point Warriors run. Jessica Case (five points, five rebounds) continued the Warriors’ scoring rampage with a three-point basket from the left side. Blanco then gave the Warriors their largest margin of the game with a five-foot turnaround jumper, making the score 51-46 with 7:23 left on the clock.

Carroll’s Jolene Fuzesy (16 points, six rebounds, six steals), the all-time collegiate career leader in three-point baskets, made one of her two from beyond the arc to cut the Warriors’ margin to two and end the Westmont juggernaut. The Fighting Saints fought their way back to a 54-54 tie with 5:49 to play on a three-point bucket by Elly Bruursema (13 points). Westmont went up one on an Anderson free throw but then fell behind by one when Fuzesy scored in the paint.

With 4:05 to play, Stevens made another layup, giving Westmont a 57-56 advantage. But Courchaine sank a three-pointer from the left baseline to put Carroll in front, 59-57. With 3:24, junior Ali Mooty (two points, four rebounds) scored the game’s last free goal and the last of Westmont’s points to tie the game, 59-59.

Carroll went up 60-51 on a free throw by Sara Meyer (one point, 13 rebounds) and neither team scored for the next two and one-half minutes. With 12 second on the clock, Heidenreich added another free throw to post a 61-59 lead on the scoreboard for Carroll.

After a Westmont timeout, the Warriors had three opportunities to score in the final seconds. An Anderson layup was too strong and bounced off the basket. But she got her own rebound and passed the ball to Alisha Heglund (eight points, three rebounds), who missed a six-foot jumper. Stevens came up with the rebound and, as time expired, literally bent over backward to put up a shot. Everyone in the arena, with the exception of the Carroll bench and the three officials, thought Stevens was fouled on her shot attempt. But the referee’s whistles remained silent and the only sound heard was the final horn.

“We played like Warriors tonight,” an emotional McKnight said. “We went to the Boys & Girls Club (in Jackson) a couple of days ago and talked about what it means to have a Warrior attitude. We talked about enthusiasm, we talked about hard work, we talked about our stance — both our physical and mental stance — and we talked about our faith.

“We saw those kids in the stands today and we modeled for them what we taught them on Monday. I don’t think that I as a coach could ask anything more of my players, and they can’t ask anything more of each other.

“Unfortunately, down the stretch we missed a couple of shots. We got great looks and we executed what we wanted to execute, the ball just didn’t fall our way.”

The disappointment of Wednesday’s loss has yet to subside, but already the Warriors are looking forward to next year.

“We came to the tournament last year and we identified some ways we wanted to improve,” McKnight said. “We wanted to get stronger as a team and we did that. Our strength today was much improved over last year and we worked hard to do that.

“I love the fact that we expected to win this game and that we played with that kind of confidence and tenacity. That is what it is going to take to come back here and take it to the next level where we get wins at nationals and giving ourselves a chance to win a national championship.”

Ron Smith is Westmont College‘s sports information director.