Fans of Haskell Indian Nations University haven’t had much to cheer lately.
Haskell lost its conference affiliation when the nine-member Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference dissolved last April.
The university announced it was cutting its long-struggling football program in May due to budget concerns.
Then along came Haskell’s women’s basketball team.
The Fightin’ Indians finally overtook a longtime foe and overcame the nine-game injury loss of key junior forward Keli Warrior to earn a trip to the NAIA Div. II National Championships.
The turning point, coach Shane Flanagan said, came Feb. 16, when Haskell fell, for the second time this season, to College of the Ozarks at Coffin Complex.
“We talked about setting the goal of meeting them in the championship,” Flanagan said. “I told them we were going to win the conference championship because of that experience.”
College of the Ozarks entered the Feb. 28 championship game of the Association of Independent Institutions on a 14-game winning streak. It had won 28 straight against Haskell, dating to 2001.
Haskell won that AII title game, 80-75. Both title-game teams earned NAIA championship berths.
“It meant the world,” Warrior said. “To finally beat this team, it says a lot.”
Sophomore forward Tyler Sumpter and junior guard Cerissa Honena-Reyes each scored 19 points. Sumpter was voted tournament MVP; Honena-Reyes, Warrior and senior guard Arnetia Begay were named to the all-tournament team.
“We were so close before,” Sumpter said. “We just wanted to put that record to rest and be the team that beat them.”
The Indians never won an MCAC championship during the conference’s 20-year existence.
The College of the Ozarks won 16 of the regular-season championships and 18 conference tournament titles.
The Lady Cats’ dominance followed Haskell to the AII after the MCAC dissolved. Flanagan said it became a psychological problem.
“We needed to get over that hump. We’ve competed with them every year, but we couldn’t finish games,” he said. “Coming off that (Feb. 28) game, the girls are excited and confident.”
The Indians were anything but confident earlier this season.
They went 20-9 last year — their first winning season since 2010 — and opened this season 6-0. Then Warrior went down. Twice.
After suffering an Achilles tendon injury in a car crash last November, Warrior returned in two weeks only to be sidelined by mononucleosis for a month. With no other experienced post players, the Indians went 6-3 as they transitioned to sophomore Brandi Buffalo starting at center.
Warrior was an effective pick-and-roll and low-post player. Buffalo forced the Indians to change their style, working more on the pick-and-pop action with Sumpter.
Once Warrior reclaimed her starting role, the team could play varied lineups. Flanagan said that had allowed the team to be a more efficient on offensive.
“The kids are used to different looks when different kids are in,” he said. “When I pull Keli and put Brandi in, we have a completely different look, but we are just as efficient. So I think that helped us out tremendously.”
After a victory nearly 15 years in the making, Flanagan said the team has done a great job of focusing on the next tournament and setting the goal of winning a national title.
“Athletically, we match up with anybody,” he said. “Now the girls are playing hard, competing and starting to believe in themselves, which is very important this time of year.”
Haskell (23-6) will play the first round of the NAIA tournament against Dakota Wesleyan (25-8) at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in Sioux City, Iowa.
The campus plans a sendoff for the team at noon today at Coffin Complex.