The Bruins top St. Benedict in opening round, but can't dig themselves out of a big hole against the unbeaten Knights

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO -- JULIE DREWES, WARTBURG COLLEGE - Hailey Hartney hoists up a shot during George Fox's 79-63 win over St. Benedict in the first round of the NCAA Division III Tournament Friday in Waverly, Iowa. The Bruins were eliminated in an 82-58 loss to host Wartburg Saturday.

It was with good reason that the NCAA Division III tournament was met with groans in Newberg when the brackets were released last week.

Not only were the Bruins, who had surged to win 13 straight games to close the season and capture both the Northwest Conference regular season and tournament titles, matched up against a top-25 opponent in the first round, but they were sent to play on the home court of the No. 2 squad in the nation, Wartburg, in the second round.

George Fox certainly demonstrated its worth in dispatching St. Benedict 79-63 Friday night in the opening round, but ran into a buzzsaw Saturday night as the Knights rolled to an 82-58 second round win Saturday night on their home floor.

"We knew coming in that this was going to be a team that has a tradition of getting to the Final Four and knew we had our work cut out tonight," GFU coach Michael Meek said. "The thing I love about our team is they continued to compete all the way throughout the game."

The No. 12 Bruins (25-4) asserted themselves early in their first-round match-up versus the No. 21 Blazers (22-5), exploding for 22 points in the second quarter to take a 36-25 lead at the break. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO -- JULIE DREWES, WARTBURG COLLEGE - The George Fox bench celebrates a play during the Bruins' 79-63 win over St. Benedict in the first round of the NCAA Division III Tournament Friday in Waverly, Iowa.

For long stretches, the game played out as a duel between centers Kaitlin Jamieson and Niki Fokken. Each finished the game with 26 points, but Jamieson had more support around her as five other Bruins scored at least seven points in the contest. Jamieson, who broke the 1,000-point career scoring barrier early in the second half, also notched 11 rebounds and five blocks, as the Bruins pretty much protected their lead throughout the second half.

George Fox, however, was unable to get similar traction against Wartburg on its home floor, especially after the Knights uncorked a 19-2 run in the first quarter to stake a 31-12 lead.

Wartburg (29-0) made 12 of its 18 field goal attempts in the quarter, but cooled down significantly in the second, shooting just 23.5 percent. The Bruins, meanwhile, didn't exactly light up the court, but managed to trim the deficit to 11 points by halftime at 41-30.

George Fox continued to trail by about 10 points for most of the third quarter, but early foul trouble meant it would be an uphill battle the rest of the way.

Both Jamieson and sharpshooter Tavin Headings fouled out in the fourth quarter and the Knights went on to go 15 for 19 on free throws in the final 10 minutes to pull away for a comfortable victory.

Wartburg also handled George Fox's full-court pressure with aplomb, turning the ball over just nine times on the night, while the Bruins coughed up the ball 19 times.

"They have an all-American point guard and some other very good guards," Meek said. "They have a lot of players back from a team that has shown a lot of success. I thought they did an awesome job at handling pressure and hit shots when they needed to. They had a tremendous first quarter. I think that quarter put us in a hole that we had to keep trying to dig out of all game. We'd like to turn them over more, that's been a big part of what we do, but we also know what a great team we ran up against tonight."

Jamieson led effort with 12 points and six rebounds, with Haylee Hutzler adding 10 points. It was a tough way for Jamieson and fellow senior Julie Litchfield to finish up after helping the Bruins post an 111-16 record in their four years.

"I can't really express how fun it is to be a part of George Fox basketball," Litchfield said. "It's something I don't think is like a lot of other places, the atmosphere we have and the kids that we have. It's so fun to be a part of and I'm so proud of our team this year and our teams in the past."

Meek was effusive in his praise for this team's progression over the course of the season. After beginning the season 2-2, the Bruins won 21 of their final 22 games in the regular season. Three of their four losses overall came against NCAA tournament teams.

"I couldn't be any prouder of a team and also these two seniors and what they've meant to this program and how hard they've worked to get to this point," Meek said. "They both have been just incredible."

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