Oakland women dismantle top-seeded Oral Roberts to advance to conference championship game

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The Oakland University women’s basketball team has peaked at the right time. With a complete, 96-62, dismantling of top-seeded Oral Roberts in the Summit League Tournament semifinals Monday afternoon, the Golden Grizzlies have advanced to Tuesday night’s championship game.

Oakland’s emphatic 34-point win over the Golden Eagles marked the largest margin of victory over a No. 1-seed in tournament history.

With strong contributions coming from every player that entered the game, the Grizzlies (20-11) followed up Sunday’s impressive quarterfinals victory with an even more well-rounded effort against ORU (21-10).

“This whole game is surreal for me,” head coach Beckie Francis said. “I’ve coached in this tournament for a long time and I’ve never experienced a semifinals game like this. When you’re in a mid-major conference like this and it’s (single elimination), I’d say this is a pretty big win.”

All five Oakland starters reached double figures, and all nine players that entered the game scored at least five points.

Sophomore Bethany Watterworth was as steady as ever and led the way with a team-high 18 points, while senior Kirstie Malone turned in the best performance of her career with 16 points.

“Anyone can step up on any given night,” Malone said after starting just her fifth game of the season. “That’s the way our team plays, and different people have had different roles to step up and start. It was just my time tonight.”

Oakland’s team defense was critically important to the victory, as the Golden Eagles were coming off a record-setting 108-point performance in the tournament opener.

“We had a gameplan and we came in and did it,” Watterworth said. “We played great team defense. We out-rebounded them and were really pumped up. That’s really what sealed the deal for us. With getting stops and forcing turnovers, we were able to (transition) and get fastbreak layups.”

Holding a narrow 31-29 lead with about five minutes left in the first half, the Grizzlies proceeded to outscore the Eagles 16-5 heading into the break. A trio of 3-pointers during that stretch helped create breathing room for Oakland before the half.

Out of the break, the Grizzlies promptly ran off 11-straight points to open up a 58-36 lead, which would eventually balloon to as many as 36 points later in the half.

“This is the best team we played all year long in conference,” ORU coach Jerry Finkbeiner said. “We got our backside whooped on today. They took us prisoners and we got thoroughly beat tonight.”

Finkbeiner praised Oakland center Brittany Carnago for her stifling defense in the frontcourt, as the Eagles were prevented from establishing any sort of interior presence.

Carnago approached a triple-double performance, finishing with 10 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks. The 6-foot-4 center also drilled two of Oakland’s 11 3-pointers.

“(Brittany) has a little extra motivation having to sit out all of last year,” Francis said. “She had to sit there and watch us lose in the quarterfinal and she learned a lot. She (told me), ‘I feel like I could coach,” so she’s so pumped up and ready to play.”

Francis credited the widespread production of the entire roster with allowing OU to consistently outplay the Eagles for 40 minutes.

“We had three freshman on this team going against Oral Roberts’ trap that everybody in the nation seems to have problems with, including us (in past games),” Francis said. “I was so proud of their composure.”

True freshman Zakiya Minifee contributed 15 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.

With the victory, Oakland will advance to the finals face South Dakota State, also a winner over IPFW on Monday. The Jackrabbits are the two-time defending champions of the conference and will have the benefit of a decidedly pro-SDSU crowd.

Next for the team is the task of quickly putting the emotional upset victory over ORU behind it to prepare for Tuesday’s championship game.

“All of this is not worth it unless we win tomorrow,” senior Anna Patritto said. “Our wins won’t mean anything unless we win tomorrow.”

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Follow @DanFenner on Twitter for updates and analysis throughout the tournament March 5-8.

Photos by Dave Eggen and Dick Carlson / Inertia