Game Recap By Mason Nesbitt, TMU Sports Information Director
Positioned in front of a backdrop sprinkled with NAIA logos, and wearing a lapel mic, Stephanie Soares tried to explain the Mustangs’ staple defense.
“We work a really interesting zone,” said the freshman, who nearly recorded a triple-double Friday. “It’s not really a 2-3, not really a 1-3-1.”
Opponents have similarly struggled to figure out exactly what it is or how to attack it.
The Mustangs held No. 3 seed MidAmerica Nazarene (KS) to 13 percent shooting after halftime Friday in Billings, Montana, on the way to a decisive 65-45 win in an NAIA Division 1 Round of 16 game.
With the win, Master’s (28-6) advanced to the quarterfinals for the second time in program history and matched its most-ever wins in a season.
The second-seeded Mustangs will play No. 1 seed Montana Western (27-4) on Saturday at 3 p.m. inside Rimrock Auto Arena.
“We were focused on both ends,” said TMU coach Dan Waldeck, whose squad limited the Pioneers to 4-of-32 from the field after halftime. “I thought our bench gave us tremendous minutes all night.”
Soares deftly navigated her postgame interview with an NAIA representative. But it was two internal conversations that helped lift the Mustangs to arguably their most complete game of the year.
During TMU’s deepest run at the NAIA tournament since 2006, sophomore Anika Neuman has reminded herself to play uninhibited by nerves.
“I’ve told myself to play free and leave it all out there,” Neuman said, “and if I do that, I’ll be happy with the outcome.”
So far, she’s listened.
Neuman scored 19 points for the second time in as many games, knocking down 4-of-8 three-pointers against MidAmerica Nazarene (25-6). She’s led Master’s in scoring in both games.
Neuman’s three-pointer with six minutes left in the second quarter pushed TMU’s lead to 10, but that’s about the time the Pioneers pushed back.
Soares picked up her second foul and went to the bench at the 4:23 mark in the second period, and MidAmerica Nazarene closed on an 11-6 run. Master’s led 32-30 at the break.
What did Soares tell herself after picking up her second foul?
“To be very careful,” she said. “To keep my hands straight up and to play smart.”
Soares didn’t foul again but continued to protect the rim at an elite level. The 6-foot-6 freshman blocked eight shots in the game to go with 14 points and 16 rebounds.
“It’s obvious how well she protects the rim for us,” said Neuman. “I thought, especially as a freshman, she overcame and adjusted really well today. So proud of that girl.”
Brooke Bailey scored 11 points for the Mustangs, and Rebekah Throns and Sabrina Thompson each added six.
Master’s outscored the Pioneers 26-16 in the paint. But it was Tristen Coltom‘s bucket from well beyond the arc that spotted the Mustangs a 51-39 lead near the end of the third. Neuman’s fourth three-pointer stretched the advantage to 20 with under three minutes to play in the game.
“Anika has been Anika,” Waldeck said. “She’s scoring, leading and just playing each possession one at a time. She’s stayed in the moment.”
At halftime, Waldeck told the Mustangs they needed to play with more identity on defense, where they’ve been among the nation’s best for the better part of the season.
The Mustangs responded with a performance reminiscent of so many others this year. The Pioneers scored nine points in the third quarter, six in the fourth.
“We were active, talking and making every one of their decisions difficult,” Waldeck said.
Here’s the box score.