Women Fall vs. South Florida

Exactly 21 years since Danny and the Miracles won the 1988 national championship and 362 days since Mario's Miracle in the national title game versus Memphis, the Kansas women's basketball team was in search of its own miracle.

It didn't happen, though, as South Florida beat Kansas, 75-71, in the WNIT championship game at Allen Fieldhouse Saturday afternoon.

But KU sure made a great run at the end.

Down 65-53 with 5:43 remaining, Bonnie Henrickson's Jayhawks came charging back. Junior forward Danielle McCray started the run with two free throws and a fastbreak layup. Then senior point guard Ivana Catic swished a jumper in the paint.

With the lead cut to six (67-61 at the 3:48 mark) after freshman forward Aishah Sutherland scored a layup off her offensive rebound (KU's third offensive rebound in the possession), the record-setting crowd of 16,113 roared and came to its feet, urging the Jayhawks to rally for their first WNIT championship in school history.

A jumper by junior guard Sade Morris and layup by sophomore center Krysten Boogaard brought KU to within one point (67-66) with 2:22 left, and the miracle seemed quite possible.

But KU would come no closer. The Jayhawks missed three of four shots from the field and two of four charities the rest of the way, while Sutherland committed a costly turnover with 51 seconds left and KU down three.

McCray scored the team's final points of the season on a three-pointer with one second remaining. She shook her fist in frustration afterwards as the buzzer sounded and the Bulls raced on the court and celebrated.

"I was like, ‘Why couldn't I shoot that earlier and make it,'" McCray said. "I was kind of mad. It was no victory pump fist."

McCray, who entered the WNIT final averaging 30.8 points on 53.8 percent field goal shooting during the tournament, shot just 7 of 25 from the field for a game-high 24 points. Morris picked up the slack with 7 of 13 shooting for 19 points, but KU didn't get enough help inside. The Jayhawks were bothered by the Bulls' size and length in the paint and missed countless layups. Boogaard (10 points) went just 4 of 11 from the field, while Sutherland (12 points) shot 4 of 10.

For the game, KU shot just 37.9 percent from the field, including 34.2 percent in the first half. The ‘Hawks entered the final shooting a sizzling 52.4 percent during the WNIT.

"We just had trouble scoring," coach Henrickson said. "That is when our bigs need to be able to step up and give us something inside and our guards need to get that extra pass."

While KU never really got in a rhythm offensively, the Jayhawks also didn't have much success stopping the quick and athletic Bulls on defense. USF didn't shoot lights out (44.8 percent field goal shooting), but shot 50 percent in the first half and scored when it mattered most near the end of the game.

"We thought we'd be able to pull it out since we made the late run," Morris said,  "but we couldn't get stops and that's what ended up killing us."

KU had held WNIT foes to just 35.2 percent shooting before the championship game.

"I think we just didn't play defense the way we have in the past," Catic said.

Senior guards Jazmine Sepulveda (18 points) and WNIT MVP Shantia Grace (16 points) led the Bulls in scoring.

Kansas was hampered the first half with McCray and Morris picking up two fouls. McCray, who played the entire game in the semifinals versus Illinois State, was forced to sit four minutes that first half. A crucial period came with the game tied at 28-all with 3:11 left before halftime when Morris picked up her second whistle and went to the bench. USF then closed the half on a pivotal 10-2 run.

KU pulled to within five (52-47) with 10:26 remaining in the game after McCray scored seven of the Jayhawks' last 11 points. But two straight turnovers by Catic and junior guard LaChelda Jacobs were costly, as USF eventually pushed the lead to 12 points with over five minutes remaining before KU made that last run.

"We just needed that earlier," Henrickson said. "It was just a little bit too little too late."

The Jayhawks took the loss quite hard in the locker room.

"People were crying," Catic said. "It was sad."

But Catic said Henrickson told the team "it's going to hurt, but we should be proud of what we've done."

Indeed. Despite losing the WNIT final, KU had much to be thankful for afterwards. Kansas finished the season winning nine of its last 12 games after previously losing eight of nine.

"I just couldn't be more proud of how they finished, how tough they played and that those kids played for what is on the front of their uniform," Henrickson said. "They are proud of this program and proud of where they go to school.

"I think that showed."

The Jayhawks were also proud, thrilled, and overwhelmed with the fan support. The attendance of 16,113 was the largest crowd in KU women's basketball history and set the Big 12 single-game record. The crowd was also the second most in WNIT history.

"Thank you so much for what you did today," Henrickson addressed the crowd on her postgame radio show. "You were unbelievable."

"The fans were camping out when we got here," Henrickson added minutes later in her interview session with the media. "They were screaming every time one of our players walked in from the parking lot and the players were a little shocked by that, but excited about it. It is because when you win, you play like you do, and you are who you are off the court, all of that matters.

"It makes people want to come and cheer for you. Plus this is the most basketball-crazy place in the world."

After their great late-season success, the Jayhawks are already gearing up for next year.

"I think it's a big momentum changer for the program," Jacobs said. "We won't be here next year. We will definitely be in the (NCAA) tournament. We know how it feels now. A lot more people are stepping up and we're just going to carry that with us and keep rolling."

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