Canitez was named the tournament’s MVP after collecting 25 points and pulling down 20 rebounds. Sampson earned a spot on the all-tournament team and led the Warriors’ surge in the second half. She also had 25 points and six rebounds.
It was the first time either Lee or Westmont had reached the championship game. The 71-65 win by the California club was the institution’s eighth crown, and denied Lee’s basketball squad an NAIA title as they depart for the Gulf South Conference and NCAA Division II.
“They played really well,” said coach Marty Rowe, who quickly pointed out he is very proud of everything his team accomplished this season. “Westmont executed their game plan really well and we couldn’t find answers for their two big girls down low. They were hard to guard and they got position on us most of the night down in the lane.
“We left the NAIA exactly how we wanted to, with the exception of winning this game. We simply got beat by a good basketball team tonight.”
Canitez connected on a runner in the lane to give the Warriors a 71-65 lead with nine seconds left. Lee (34-3) had its last two opportunities blocked as the final seconds ran off the clock.
Hollie German helped get the Lady Flames off to an early start and scored her team’s first nine points, including the first of four 3-pointers to open the game. Lee’s lead grew to eight, 16-8 seven minutes into the final half on another trey by German.
However, in the game of runs, Westmont took its first lead of the night, 17-16, by outscoring the Lady Flames 9-0 as Sampson knocked down a pair of free throws.
The Warriors picked up the defensive intensity as the two talented teams traded runs over the next few minutes. The halftime ended on a bucket by German that cut the Warriors lead to 34-30.
Lee got off to a quick start and was the aggressor to open the second 20 minutes, scoring four points to tie the game at 34 at the 19:31 mark. Coach Rowe’s club would continue to fight back and tie the score two other times during the second period, but on each occasion Westmont scored on its next possession to quickly cool the Lee runs. The Warriors earned their first double-digit lead of the game with 4:42 left on Sampson’s 25th point of the night.
Lee stepped up again and got back-to-back buckets by Jenna Adams and a 3-pointer from German to quickly cut the Westmont advantage back to three points with less than one minute remaining. However, the late surge proved to be too little, too late.
The Warriors finished the game shooting over 47 percent from the field and 40 percent from behind the arc. Westmont also dominated the glass, outrebounding Lee 45-27.
The Lady Flames, as coach Rowe explained, never shot the ball well the entire tournament. In the final, they converted 39 percent for the game and struggled again from 3-point range (8-of-25).
“I thought we played hard,” Rowe stressed. “They are the best offensive team we played during the entire tournament."
German, who had an outstanding tournament and was named to the all-tournament first team, was the game’s leading scorer with 27 points. Adams, who was also an all-tournament selection, finished with 19 to go along with seven rebounds. Karley Miller added eight points and five boards.
The well-played game saw the Lady Flames turn the basketball over just five times compared to 10 assists. Brooke Hamby had four assists and German totaled three.
Westmont guard Esther Lee hurt the Lady Flames by knocking down 4-of-5 3-point attempts and finished with 12 points. Celina Gougis also contributed for the champions, scoring 12 points and garnering seven rebounds.
“I’m extremely happy for our seniors (Hamby, Julia Zimmerman, Mary Jackson and four-year player Rachel Lockhart),” praised Rowe. “I think people really appreciate the hard work our team put in over this run. Setting a new school record for number of victories and reaching the NAIA final for the first time is something our team can always be very proud of.
“From where we started at the beginning of the season to this point, I’m pleased with this club and what we accomplished. We are ready for the next step next year.”