By Max Goodwin
The length and pressure of the Sterling College defense overwhelmed Avila in the KCAC Championship game Monday night, as Sterling dominated, 90-66. It was exactly what Sterling has done to KCAC opponents throughout the season with a 22-2 record against conference opponents, and 31-2 overall.
Senior Matti Morgan led Avila in scoring this season as the KCAC Player of The Year, but each time Morgan touched the ball in position to score, the Sterling defense collapsed around her. Morgan still managed 20 points, with senior Tatiana McCree scoring 18 and sophomore Ainsley Tolson with 17 points.
On offense, Sterling shot a scorching 56.3 percent from the field in the first half and knocked down 24 of 26 free throws. Sterling appeared determined to win a conference championship. Morgan scored the first five points for Avila before Sterling powered through a 22-3 run the rest of the quarter and never looked back.
“Matti had a really big three at the beginning and then we kind of just lost sight of what our foundation is. We’ve got to play some defense,” Head Coach Torie Murillo said after the game.
Sterling slammed the door shut on any Avila comeback opportunity by just simply making shots.
“It’s like you’re hitting a brick wall when they’re hitting shots,” Murillo said.
With a win, an automatic bid to the NAIA tournament would have been awarded to Avila as KCAC tournament champions, but the Eagles will instead wait to see if they are chosen by the selection committee as an at-large bid.
The last time Avila made the NAIA tournament, in 2020, they qualified automatically as conference champions. It’s a new experience for the players who have never been on the bubble before, but Murillo is familiar with the situation.
Ten years ago, in her own senior season at Avila, Murillo’s team lost in the conference tournament and awaited their tournament fate with a 21-10 record. The tournament committee decided Avila deserved a spot. Avila went on to shock No. 3 ranked Freed-Hardeman in the first round of that 2012 NAIA tournament before falling in the Sweet Sixteen.
“I had to trust my senior year, just hoping where there’s a will there’s a way,” Murillo said. “Hopefully, we get some looks and get in.”
Today, Avila sits on the bubble with the same record as Murillo’s senior year, 21-10. Avila finished with a conference record of 17-7, with three of those losses coming against Sterling.
Avila has made the tournament once since Murillo’s senior season in 2012 and it was a heartbreaking experience. As the team prepared for its opening game in March of 2020, Murillo learned that the tournament would be canceled due to the initial Covid outbreak. She had to relay the news to her devastated team. This year has been a mission to reach that spot once again.
Hope still remains that the season is not yet finished. Murillo knows her team has more talent than they showed against Sterling in the KCAC championship. She thinks the committee can look past one bad night and see Avila’s season for what it was.
“I don’t think our mission is done yet,” Murillo said. “Sometimes your greatest accomplishments come after your greatest falls.”