Nationally eighth-ranked Southwestern Oklahoma State University was the best team in Great American Conference women's basketball all season long, and the Lady Bulldogs were that again in the 2019 GAC Tournament championship game on Sunday.
SWOSU (30-1) defeated Arkansas Tech University 87-66 at Bruin Fieldhouse in Bartlesville, Okla., to extend its winning streak to 30 games and claim the automatic bid from the GAC in the 2019 NCAA Division II Tournament.
The loss ended the Golden Suns' season with an overall record of 15-16.
No. 7 seed Arkansas Tech defeated East Central University 76-74 in double overtime on Thursday and Southern Nazarene University 87-84 in overtime on Saturday to become the lowest-seeded women's team to ever reach the GAC Tournament final.
"We had to fight hard to get here," said Dave Wilbers, ATU head coach, following Sunday's loss to SWOSU. "We missed a lot of shots in the second half. Their depth and pressure wore us down, and we couldn't hit enough shots."
The score was tied 39-39 with less than a minute to go in the first half. Back-to-back Golden Suns' turnovers led to a Tyra Aska layup and a Taber Beer 3-pointer. The Lady Bulldogs went to the intermission with a 44-39 advantage.
Tech's Hannah Villines made a 3-pointer on the first possession of the second half to pull the Suns within 44-42. It was the only field goal that ATU made during the first eight minutes of the third quarter, and SWOSU took advantage by building a 57-44 lead.
The Golden Suns' final push was a 7-0 run over a span of 1:02 late in the third quarter.
Lyrik Williams made two free throws, Ke'Vonshaye Stackhouse had a steal and layup and Jayana Sanders knocked down a 3-pointer to cut the Lady Bulldogs' lead to 57-51 with 54 seconds left in the period.
A hustle play by Beer turned the tide in SWOSU's favor for good.
She tracked down a loose ball and was fouled with 2.2 seconds remaining in the third quarter. The back-up point guard made both free throws to begin a decisive 8-0 spurt by the Lady Bulldogs. They led 65-51 with 7:52 to go in the fourth quarter and maintained at least a 12-point margin the rest of the way.
Aska paced SWOSU with 25 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. Bethany Franks and Hayden Priddy had 12 points apiece. Taylor Hedrick and Maddie Sperle both added 11 points.
The Lady Bulldogs finished with a 19-8 advantage in points off turnovers.
Villines and Jacie Higgins notched 14 points apiece for the Golden Suns. Sanders added 13 points.
Franks was voted GAC Tournament most valuable player. She was joined on the All-GAC Tournament team by fellow SWOSU players Aska, Priddy and Hailey Tucker.
Williams, the Suns' only senior, and Sanders were Arkansas Tech's representatives on the All-GAC Tournament team.
It was the third GAC Tournament title for SWOSU's women, who also claimed the crown in 2012 and 2014.
The Golden Suns made their fifth consecutive appearance in the GAC Tournament championship game.
It was a remarkable turnaround for an ATU team that lost eight of its first 11 regular season conference games before recovering with a stretch of nine wins over 13 games through the GAC Tournament semifinals.
"We had a very young team that had some growing pains, but some highlights too," said Wilbers. "We gained a lot of experience from playing in a tournament final, and I like the way we bounced back all year long. This team kept playing and never gave up."