SIOUX CITY, Iowa – In yet another battle between the top two teams in the GPAC, hometown Morningside continued its storybook season. Meanwhile, the 2020-21 journey has ended for the Concordia University Women’s Basketball program. Despite a near triple-double from Taylor Cockerill, the fifth-seeded Mustangs shot 64.3 percent in the second half and pulled away for an 83-67 victory in Sioux City, Iowa, on Saturday (March 20) night.
This was the eighth time that Head Coach Drew Olson has led the program to at least the NAIA national quarterfinal round. That feat was made more difficult this season with the move to one division in the NAIA. Led by Olson and Cockerill, the Bulldogs (22-9) improved tremendously from October to March.
“It was a crazy up and down year that was so different,” Olson said. “I just thought we overcame a lot of things and grew together. We found out the type of team we needed to be and played really well down the stretch. For this team to get to the elite eight really shows the growth we had.”
In a postgame exchange between coaches, Morningside’s Jamie Sale admitted to Olson that he had trouble sleeping leading into this matchup. The Mustangs had won each of the three previous meetings, but the last two had been squeakers at the buzzer. Sale’s bunch didn’t allow for such drama this time around with its sizzling shooting in the second half. Sierra Mitchell (26) and Taylor Rodenburgh (20) combined for 46 points.
Cockerill was never going to let Concordia give in. After trailing by 16 late in the third quarter, the Bulldogs cut its deficit down to just six (63-57) with more the six minutes remaining. Rylee Pauli put home back-to-back buckets in the comeback effort. However, the high-powered Mustangs (29-2) always had an answer. Rodenburgh rattled off the seven-straight Morningside points to push the lead back to double digits (72-60), where it remained the rest of the way.
An injury to starting freshman guard Bailey Conrad in the opening two minutes changed the way Concordia operated on Saturday. Without Conrad to handle the ball, the responsibility increased for fellow freshman Taysha Rushton. Cockerill and Rushton no longer had Conrad to play off of on the perimeter and the rotations changed for Olson.
“We had a good mindset coming in,” Olson said. “Early on things just didn’t go our way. We missed a couple bunnies. When Bailey went down it really changed our rotation and how we like to attack them. It just taxed Taysha a lot more. We weren’t good enough today to beat a really good team, especially when they played like they did in the second half. They were really, really good.”
There was no time to make excuses without Conrad. Cockerill did her best to pick up the slack and played like a Bulldog once again, finishing with a line of 17 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists. Her fiery competitiveness and toughness were on display again in the second half. Cockerill’s career point total stands at 1,374 in three collegiate seasons. She is eligible to play another season, if she so chooses.
Said Olson, “She’s pretty special. She’s one of the greatest of all time in our program’s history with the things she accomplished – and that’s just in three years. Fierce competitor. Amazing teammate. Amazing leader. One of my favorites to get to coach. I know God has plans for her. I don’t know what that is. I hope she comes back – that’s selfish. I love coaching her.”
Off the bench, Kayla Luebbe provided a big lift with 15 points on 7-for-7 shooting from the floor. Luebbe scored in double figures three times this season against Morningside. Fresh off a sparkling performance in Friday’s win over fourth-seeded Marian University (Ind.), Pauli notched a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Rushton added eight points and three steals and Mackenzkie Koepke contributed nine points.
The Mustangs celebrated GPAC regular season and postseason titles and now will play in the national semifinals against top seed Thomas More (Ky.). Morningside also got out to a slow start offensively on Saturday. It heated up with a 49-point second half while spurred by the GPAC Player of the Year in Mitchell.
Concordia isn’t going anywhere. The Bulldogs will be back in 2021-22 with aspirations of another national tournament run. The program appreciates the efforts of Cockerill, Rebecca Higgins and Faith Troshynski, who are each seniors from an academic perspective.