GVSU pulls off upsets in first two rounds of NCAA tournament

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Janae Langs (20) picks up her dribbles and looks to pass the ball.  The Lakers defeat the Chargers of Hillsdale College Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016 in Allendale.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Janae Langs (20) picks up her dribbles and looks to pass the ball. The Lakers defeat the Chargers of Hillsdale College Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016 in Allendale.

Beau Troutman

Grand Valley State wasn’t supposed to make an unexpected conference tournament run. The Lakers weren’t supposed to beat the No. 6-ranked team in the country without their two best players. They weren’t supposed to sweep their rival in the postseason, after being swept by them in the regular season.

But they did it anyway.

The Lakers (24-9) kicked off the first two rounds of March Madness in the 2016 Midwest Regional tournament at Ashland University with a 72-70 win over No. 2 seed and the No. 6 overall team in Division II, Lewis University (28-3), 72-70, and a 63-56 win over Saginaw Valley State (22-9) on March 12.

The two wins come after GVSU made a surprise run to the GLIAC championship on March 6, in which the Lakers lost to Ashland 70-53.

“We lost a lot to Ashland, they played really well and we just kind of wrote it off,” said GVSU head coach Mike Williams. “We said, ‘You know what, hey, that was our bad game and now we’re going forward.’ It was a second chance to play in the postseason and I think our players did a good job of taking advantage of it.”

The Lakers won both games despite star forward Kayla Dawson being essentially a non-factor, after she suffered an ankle injury in the loss to Ashland. Dawson had a combined 26 minutes and eight points in the two wins.

Lewis had lost two games all season going into its bout with the Lakers, but one of those was a 71-63 loss to GVSU on Nov. 25 at Fieldhouse Arena.

The Lakers had a 68-66 lead with 25 seconds left, and, with Bailey Cairnduff at the line, they had a chance to make it a two-possession game with the shot clock turned off.

Cairnduff, who was shooting 91 percent from the charity stripe this year, made the first free throw, but missed the second to keep the Flyers within one possession. A layup from the Flyers’ Mariyah Brawner-Henley on the next possession cut the lead to one, and the Flyers fouled Cairnduff again to send her to the line.

Cairnduff split the pair again to keep the Flyers in the game, trailing only by two. After a couple of passes, the Flyers got the ball to 6-foot-tall Jessica Kelliher, who tied the game up with a score under the basket.

With just eight seconds remaining, the Lakers had the final possession, and they made it count. Point guard Janae Langs took the ball up court, found a seam and put up a double-clutch layup with just two ticks left on the clock, giving GVSU the upset.

“I just happened to be the last one to take the shot, and we wouldn’t be in that position if it wasn’t for my teammates, who made some big things happen down the stretch,” Langs said.

Langs led the team in scoring with 16 points on the night.

The late-game heroics are nothing new to Langs, who nailed a clutch 3-pointer in the closing seconds against Michigan Tech in the first-round GLIAC tournament win against the Huskies. Langs took over for senior Brionna Barnett, who had a season-ending back injury in a Jan. 28 loss to SVSU.

“Coach (Phil) Sayers drew up the play for her,” Williams said. “She had confidence, felt she could do it and I thought it was a great play. She got down on two feet, a little pull-up and boom — hit it.”

The Lakers then took on rival SVSU the next day, which they beat handily in the second round of the GLIAC tournament on March 5, 76-51.

The Cardinals led once during the entire game, and it was only a one-point lead in the third quarter that didn’t last long. The Lakers, who had a 53-51 lead with four minutes left in the game, used a 10-5 run to fend off the Cardinals.

Six of those points came from Cairnduff, whose late misses at the free throw line against Lewis nearly cost GVSU.

“We knew we had to shut down their post players, and prevent dribble penetration,” Cairnduff said. “I think we played really good team defense today and played really well together overall.”

The Cardinals heaved up 72 field goal attempts compared the Lakers’ 57, but only converted on 24 of them (33.3 percent). In the second half alone, the Cardinals only shot 11-of-44 as a team (25 percent).

Cardinal forward and GLIAC leading-scorer Emily Wendling (18.1 points per game) was limited to 10 points on 5-of-16 shooting. Cairnduff finished with 19 points and six boards for the Lakers.

The Cardinals swept the Lakers in the regular season 2-0, but the Lakers took the postseason 2-0, earning a trip to the round of 16 on March 14 in Ashland, Ohio. The Lakers will face Drury University (26-4), the No. 4 seed and No. 14-ranked team in Division II. Drury advanced to the regional finals with an 86-60 beatdown of Ashland, the GLIAC regular season and tournament champion.

After what the Lakers have accomplished thus far, Williams says there’s no reason to count them out now.

“That’s kind of what their make-up is right now,” he said. “They’ve got a staying mentality. They make plays and they’re not giving up on (the postseason). This team just kind of wants to stay around.”