--- NKU’s Angela Healy (42) and Jessie Slack (right) defend Alaska Anchorage post player Rebecca Kielpinski during the second half Thursday night. NKU held on for a 57-54 win over the Seawolves to advance to the NCAA Division II national championship game.


KEARNEY, Neb. - Given the frigid shooting percentages of Northern Kentucky University’s opponent Thursday night, it was only fitting that team was from the state of Alaska.

NKU limited the University of Alaska Anchorage to 29.1 percent from the field and held on for a 57-54 victory over the Seawolves in the NCAA Division II national semifinals. The Norse (27-8) placed four players in double figures, showed extreme toughness on the defensive end of the court during the final three minutes and earned a trip to Saturday’s national championship game against South Dakota (33-1) at 6 p.m. Eastern time.

Danyelle Echoles led NKU with 13 points, while Jessie Slack scored 12. Cassie Brannen and Angela Healy each finished with 10 points, but both players fouled out late in the second half.

Even without its best two inside players, NKU held off the Seawolves in the closing moments. Alaska Anchorage had two chances in the closing seconds, but Maria Nilsson’s 3-point attempt was off the mark.

Jennifer Salazar grabbed the offensive rebound and missed a short jumper as time expired, sending NKU to the national championship game for the third time in nine years.

“It was a classic, and it will probably be on ESPN Classic in the next three hours or so,” NKU head coach Nancy Winstel joked. “What a great game. It was back and forth, very physical and a lot of big plays by both teams. We could not put them away.

“We are used to playing physical in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. Alaska is a very good defensive team, and we did not expect to score a whole lot of points. Our defense pulled it out for us at the end. If we defend, we have a chance. The girls showed a lot of heart in this one.”

NKU appeared on its way to coasting into the national championship game with 6:29 left on the clock after Slack buried a jumper to give the Norse a 45-36 lead. NKU still owned a nine-point advantage with 3:53 remaining after a Healy basket made it 50-41.

The Seawolves, however, used an 11-4 run to slice NKU’s lead to 54-52 with 1:13 left. The Norse also had to hold on during the final minute without their top two scorers, Brannen and Healy. Brannen fouled out with 1:13 left, and Healy exited the game with 48 seconds left on the clock.

“On a given night, we have several players who are capable of putting up 25 points, and our balance makes us very hard to defend,” said Slack, who made two huge free throws with 57 seconds remaining to extend NKU’s lead to 56-52.

---NKU celebrates after defeating Alaska Anchorage in the national semifinals. The Norse meet South Dakota for the national championship Saturday at 6 p.m.

Echoles, a Colerain High School graduate, keyed NKU in the first half by knocking down a pair of 3-pointers and converting a steal into a breakaway layup. The Norse held a 26-21 lead at the break as Echoles paced the offense with eight first-half points.

“This is amazing, and one of the reasons several of us came to NKU was because we knew we would have a chance to win a national championship here,” Echoles said. “I remember talking with Karen Brackman one day about that, and I said, ‘We are going to win a national championship here one day.’ It still hasn’t sunk in yet that we are about to play in the national championship game.”

NKU shot 44.7 percent from the field and converted 64.3 percent of its free throws. Nicole Chiodi grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds for the Norse, while Healy collected eight boards. Slack picked up five steals and added three assists.

Rebecca Kielpinski led Alaska Anchorage with 16 points. Ruby Williams added 12 points and nine rebounds for the Seawolves, who defeated Franklin Pierce in overtime in the national quarterfinals on Wednesday.

NKU will make its first national championship game appearance since 2003, when the Norse dropped a 65-50 decision to South Dakota State. The same state will provide the opposition Saturday when No. 3 South Dakota - which knocked off previously unbeaten and top-ranked Delta State in the other semifinal contest Thursday night - meets NKU for the national title.