Lady Pirates rebound from opening round loss to finish 7th at nationals

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The North Central Missouri College Lady Pirates offseason of change is now underway, with a talented 2022-2023 team returning from Port Huron, Michigan on Sunday with a 3-1 record and 7th place finish at the NJCAA Division Two women’s basketball tournament at St. Clair County Community College.  The game wrapped up the decorated college careers of the majority of the NCMC roster, including three-year sophomores Maci Moore, Nora Ford, and Kennadie Crowe, in addition to starting forward and Milan native Jordyn Gray, and sophomore transfer guard Ianara Morbidoni, a key contributor to this year’s squad after moving in from Marshalltown (IA) Community College.

The week of games in Michigan began mid-afternoon on Tuesday for North Central, as the Lady Pirates, holding a #10 seed, looked to spring an upset on #7 seed Pima (AZ) Community College.  For most of the contest, the upset looked likely, as Ford exploded out of the gates in the first half, giving NCMC a halftime advantage.

However, the offense slumped in the final two quarters, as the Lady Pirates struggled to hold the lead.  By early in the fourth quarter, the Aztecs had grabbed the advantage, with the Pirates unable to counter, falling 69-66.  Nora Ford had a game-high 29 points for NCMC, with Crowe adding 13 and Moore 10 points.  The loss dropped North Central’s record to 23-7 and ended the Lady Pirates hopes of a national title, dropping them into the eight-team consolation bracket.  Pima, led by Angel Addleman with 21 points, Matehya Matehya with 13, Torrance Begay 13, and Luisayde Chavez’s 12 points, advanced to the quarterfinal round, but failed to reach Saturday, losing their next two games to end the season at 26-9.

The loss for North Central stung the Lady Pirates, keeping the team from a quarterfinal showdown with eventual national champion CCBC Essex of Baltimore, Maryland, and giving the team all of Tuesday off.  The first-round consolation play began at 9 o’clock on Thursday morning.

Facing a “do-or-die” contest on the first game of the third day of action, the Lady Pirates responded, as Ford racked up another big game with 28 points, with Moore adding 17, Morbidoni 17, and Crowe 11 in a 78-67 win over in-state favorite Grand Rapids (MI) Community College.  Grace Lodes had 23 points for the Raiders, with her strong interior presence and size (6’2″) providing Moore with a strong challenge for NCMC.  Sally Merrill had 13 points and Marlene Bussler 10 for GRCC.

Remaining in their time-slot as the first game of the day, North Central advanced to a late Friday morning second-round consolation game with Niagara County (NY) Community College, providing the Lady Pirates a rematch against the squad they defeated in the opening round of the 2021-2022 tournament.

This time, in her statement game in a two-year career with North Central, Jordyn Gray played spectacular basketball, combining energy, strong defense, and timely offense for a career-high 19 points, with Morbidoni’s 16 helping in the scoring column, as the Lady Pirates shut down the ThunderWolves with a strong defensive effort, winning 67-47.  Maci Moore and Nora Ford both had nine points for NCMC, with the Lady Pirates advancing to play on the final day of the season for the second straight year.  Aichata Ballo had 12 points and Ashlynn Johnson 11 for NCCC, finishing the year at 29-5.

Saturday began with eight teams still playing, while the other eight had begun the trip home, eliminated from the tournament with two losses.  The SC4 Fieldhouse hosted four games through the day, beginning with the consolation (7th place) championship game between NCMC and Danville Area Community College Jaguars, an Illinois program making its first ever appearance in the women’s national tournament.

DACC had a combination of defensive speed and athleticism, along with good offensive flow, that gave the Lady Pirates fits throughout the game.  The Jaguars led for the majority of the first half and for the opening stages of the third quarter.  However, a slumbering Lady Pirate offense came alive in that third quarter, scoring 21 points to turn a 33-29 halftime deficit into a 50-48 lead.  North Central clung to the advantage in the final quarter, closing out a 75-70 victory to finish the season with a three-game winning streak, a 26-7 record, and back-to-back appearances in Port Huron.

In the final game of a decorated career with Trenton High School and North Central Missouri College, Maci Moore dominated the glass, with four baskets combining with 10 of 12 accuracy from the free throw line for a team-high 18 points, with many of her second-half rebounds done in the face of fierce combination from the Jaguars front line.  Moore has decided not to continue her career at a four-year institution.

Named to the All-Tournament Team for a second consecutive year, Nora Ford, a dynamic combo guard from Hamilton, had 11 points in her Lady Pirate finale.  After scoring nearly 30 points in the first two games of the national tournament, Ford had to adjust her game, as both Danville and Niagara County attacked her with consistent double-teams to force the ball from her hands, only showing her ability to make teammates better and make her opponents pay for that strategy.  Kennadie Crowe, a product of Norborne High School before playing her last three years at North Central, had 16 points.  Jordyn Gray matched Ford with 11.  For Danville, Alexus Mobley had 19 points, Brianna Hamilton 15, and Nevaeh Reaves 12.  The Jaguars finish the year 20-11.

In the fifth place game, Morton College, the #1 seed in the tournament, defeated Bryant & Stratton.  Third place went to Kirkwood Community College over Harcum College, while CCBC Essex beat the tournament’s “Cinderella”, #8 seed Richard Bland College, 95-85 in overtime on Saturday night to return to Baltimore with the national championship hardware.

In a fitting tribute to the most decorated group of graduating sophomores in program history, the Lady Pirates, during Saturday night’s championship game, were honored with the NJCAA’s B.J. Graber Sportsmanship Award.

Photo credit – NCMC Pirates / Facebook / Port Huron, MI