Back in November, as the women’s college basketball season tipped off, few gave George Fox a chance to go far in the Northwest Conference, let alone the postseason. Though the Bruins were coming off a respectable 22-5 season, NWC coaches picked them to finish fourth in the conference.
Lauren Codling and Sammy Naluai swarm a Thomas More player during the championship game. Naluai (right) earned the Elite 89 award for having the highest cumulative GPA in the Final Four.
Fast forward to mid-March: Four months and 32 wins later, George Fox stood as one of only two undefeated schools out of more than 400 NCAA Division III programs in the country. Along the way, the Bruins scored nearly 75 points per game while limiting opponents to 52 per contest – a 23-point average margin of victory that testified to the team’s dominance.
The final victory didn’t come – Thomas More College, led by All-American Sydney Moss, prevailed 83-63 in the title game in Grand Rapids, Mich., on March 21. But George Fox didn’t leave Michigan empty-handed, coming home with fond memories from a season rich in accomplishment.
Dacia Heckendorf gives some pointers on shooting technique at a clinic for Special Olympics athletes.
“I’m so proud of this team,” Coach Mike Meek said. “I appreciate how everyone worked so hard – how we shared the ball. We were incredibly selfless.”
George Fox’s balance bore that out, as three players led the way. Through the regular season, junior forward Justine Benner averaged 16.5 points and senior guard Jami Morris scored 13.8 points per contest, while senior wing/forward Lauren Codling averaged 11.7 points and 11.1 rebounds. Collectively, the Bruins’ hustle translated to 14.5 steals and four blocks per game.
It all helped George Fox claim the program’s 10th Northwest Conference title since 2000. The team continued its roll in the postseason with a blowout win over Penn State-Abington (83-25), a defeat of NWC rival Puget Sound (67-49), a narrow victory over Texas-Dallas (77-73) in the round of 16, and a convincing win over Final Four host Calvin College (78-63) in the round of 8. George Fox earned its spot in the championship game with a 70-58 defeat of Montclair State.
Team Chaplain Tashawna Gordon rallies the players prior to the championship game.
But numbers only tell part of the story. The underlying storyline all season was how well the Bruins gelled and parlayed that team unity into a run no one outside of Newberg saw coming.
“The best part about it all was this group – they loved each other and loved spending time together,” Meek said.
Jami Morris (left) looks to attack the paint while Lauren Codling (right) rejects a shot at the rim, helping to lead the Bruins to a 70-58 victory over Montclair State to earn their place in the championship game.
Senior wing Dacia Heckendorf echoed his words. “This team was really close, and we were good all year about sticking together when times got tough,” she said.
Perhaps senior transfer Codling summed it up best: “Coming in as a transfer you don’t know what to expect, but everyone welcomed me with open arms. I’ve never felt more a part of a program. They welcomed me and allowed me to be a part of something really special.”
The Bruins also earned individual recognition, as junior Sammy Naluai was awarded the Elite 89 Academic Recognition Award for having the highest cumulative GPA among student-athletes participating in the Grand Rapids, Mich., finals site. In addition, Codling was named a third-team All-American by D3hoops, and Benner received honorable mention recognition on the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s All-American list.
George Fox graduates only three seniors – Morris, Heckendorf and Codling – leaving Meek and company poised to make another run in 2015-16. Should that happen, this time no one will be surprised.
Watch highlights, interviews and behind-the-scenes footage: georgefox.edu/FinalFour