The Lady Vikings were trying to knock off a second nationally-ranked opponent on the road in the Heart of America Conference Tournament, but No. 21 MidAmerica Nazarene made the plays necessary down the stretch to avoid a second straight home loss to MVC with a 65-60 semifinal decision.
The loss closes the book on the three-year reign of Valley head coach Keith Lindahl, returning to Minnesota due to a homesickness exacerbated by the inability for the program to gain the traction he expected.
Lindahl's swan song was a discordant one, at least insofar as officiating was concerned.
"I don't think they let us play," he declared, looking at a box score which showed a 30-20 disparity in free-throw attempts -- nearly a third taken by senior all-American Jenna Matson, who had two Lady Vikings foul out trying to guard her while only two personals were called against her. "They were doing the same thing we were doing."
One can only wonder what difference it may have made had the third official assigned to the game not vanished in the Kansas night, since Lindahl's main complaint was about calls not made -- such as a possible three-second violation even before 6-foot-4 junior center Ashley Patterson hustled her way to two offensive rebounds and converted the second follow shot to give the Lady Pioneers the lead they would hold for the remaining 3:16 of the game.
Still, one former HAAC coach on the scene observed that the two officials "were doing about as well as they can." Stopping a player of Matson's caliber -- the three-time conference "player of the year" has a school record of 2,400-plus career points -- is never an easy matter. And the refs made no mistakes in seeing the three-point line as junior JoNel Henning made shot after shot from behind it -- six in all, the last giving MidAmerica a two-possession cushion with 1:11 left.
"We just couldn't stop her," Lindahl conceded. "The last time we played here, she didn't hit one."
When Valley won in the Cook Center on Feb. 11, Henning made one of six from outside, but she's 34.5 percent for the season -- her 80 treys being a dozen more than the Lady Vikings' entire team.
Patterson and Matson each made a pair of buckets as the Lady Pioneers jumped out to a 15-4 lead to open the game, but Valley clamped down defensively -- forcing six turnovers during a 15-2 run.
Senior Bonnie Johnson, an all-American in her own right, scored 11 of those points and senior Theresa Gittens tied the game on a slash to the hole with 6:30 remaining in the first half.
"I just told them they had to pick it up a little bit," Lindahl explained the turnaround, "be more aggressive, come out on top of their screens and get the ball inside."
The teams went into halftime tied, and would be deadlocked seven more times during the second half. Valley regained the lead three times during a three-minute span, once on a stick-back by junior Imogene Dooley and twice free throws by senior Holly Siverling, but didn't make a field goal following Henning's last bomb.
Johnson got off an open three which would have tied the game with six seconds to go, but it didn't fall and Gittens' follow was the seventh shot blocked by Matson.
Matson and Henning each scored 18 points for MidAmerica Nazarene (23-10), which will defend its title at top seed Benedictine on Tuesday after having now locked up an at-large bid to the NAIA Tournament.
Johnson finished her stellar, albeit brief, career at Valley (15-15) with game-high 23 points and 12 rebounds. Gittens, the team's only four-year starter, added 13 points.
"I'm proud of the way we played," Lindahl said. "We played hard and played smart.
"It was a tough loss, but I'm glad we went out playing hard," he concluded.