No one told the Bruins’ 10 freshmen they weren’t supposed to go undefeated and win an NCAA national title
by Rob Felton
Scott Rueck has never had a losing record in 13 seasons as coach of the George Fox women’s basketball team. But entering the 2008-09 season, it seemed likely.
Gone were seven seniors and all five starters from last season’s record-setting 25-5 team. His four returners were reserves who averaged between 1.4 and 4.2 points a game. The team’s lone senior, 6-foot-4 Kristen Shielee of Gresham, Ore., had spent so much of her college career sitting behind all-conference post players that she had asked Rueck if she should quit the sport and focus on her senior-year student teaching. Add in 10 talented but untested freshmen and Rueck felt his coaching peers were charitable when they picked the Bruins to finish a middle-of-the-pack fifth in a Northwest Conference preseason poll.
But Rueck noticed something special when he hosted a team barbecue at his family’s home. Noise. “They were so loud it was like they knew each other for years,” he told The Oregonian. “It was kind of weird how instantly they got along. That’s been the case all year. It’s been like a family since day one. So as soon as I knew that, I knew it would be a great year. I didn’t know how much we would win, though.”
Coach Scott Rueck was named NCAA Div. III National Coach of the Year after leading his young team to an undefeated season. “I thought we'd be pretty good eventually, but I didn't know how good.”
The winning started immediately as the Bruins rolled through their non-conference games, winning tournaments in Texas and Nevada. Shielee’s presence at the focal point of the Bruins’ ferocious 2-3 zone defense gave the young team time to find its offense. Freshman guard Keisha Gordon from Vancouver, Wash., and junior forward Elise Kuenzi from Silverton, Ore., led the Bruins’ balanced attack with aggressive drives to the basket and deft three-point shooting. Shielee also began to add polish to her offense, making her almost unstoppable under the basket. Her triple-double (12 points, 21 rebounds, 10 blocks) against Bridgewater College is only the second in team history.
On a January road trip to eastern Washington, the new-look Bruins showed they were for real as they romped past league favorites Whitman College and Whitworth University. A 52-47 nail-biter against University of Puget Sound a week later in Newberg would be the biggest challenge the team faced before the playoffs began.
Hometown proud: Newberg’s fire and police departments escorted the team on a victory lap through downtown.
After a first-round NCAA tournament bye, the Bruins leveled Chapman University 83-40 to advance to the team’s fourth “Sweet 16” appearance since 2000. Freshman guard Sage Indendi of Livingston, Mont., had a team-high 18 points, five assists and four steals as the Bruins surged late to defeat No. 9 Oglethorpe University 71-56.
Next up was Hope College, the team that ended the Bruins’ 2007-08 playoff run. One year after playing just three minutes off the bench against the Flying Dutch, Shielee proved the difference, swatting five of her nine blocked shots in the final eight minutes as the Bruins advanced to their first ever Final Four with a 58-46 win.
The only senior on the team, 6-4 center Kristen Shielee, won Final Four MVP and honorable mention All-American honors.
In the semifinal game against The College of New Jersey, Shielee neutralized 6-3 post Hillary Klimowicz, the Division III National Player of the Year, while the Bruins hit a single-game tournament record 14 three-pointers to fuel their 67-52 victory. Indendi knocked down 6 of 8 three-point attempts on her way to a game-high 23 points.
The championship game pitted George Fox against Washington University in St. Louis, a four-time national champion making its eighth appearance in the Final Four. Pulling out to a 14-point lead midway through the second half, the Bruins appeared to be cruising to the title. Back in Newberg, the rowdy 200-plus fans watching a video broadcast in Hoover Lecture Hall grew nervous as the Bruins went cold and Washington fought back to within one point with 2:19 to go.
Sage indeed: One of 10 fearless freshmen on the roster, Sage Indendi’s veteran-like play earned her national Rookie of the Year honors.
But then the Bruins went back inside to Shielee. Twice in the next minute she delivered layups to give George Fox breathing room. The rest of the scoring would be done at the free-throw line by Kuenzi, Indendi and Shielee, who hit the last two with one second remaining. She turned and ran down the court with a giant smile on her face. Moments later, she was holding the national championship trophy as confetti fell around her celebrating teammates.
Perfect ending: the Bruins finished a 32-0 season as the first NCAA Div. III basketball national champions from west of the Rocky Mountains.
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