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Iowa Central places fourth at nationals

PEORIA, Ill. -- If the Iowa Central women's basketball team was going to win the NJCAA Division II tournament, it was going to have to take down the toughest competition in the nation along the way.

Entering the tournament as the No. 5 seed, the Tritons beat the No. 12 and No. 4 seeds to reach the semifinals, where they lost by only one point to No. 1 seeded Pima (Ariz.).

IC was beaten by No. 2 Parkland (Ill.) in the third-place matchup to finish fourth.

"It was brutal, and we almost pulled it off, at least against Pima," said Iowa Central head coach Craig Carlson, a native of Heron Lake. "It's just one of those deals."

On Wednesday, the Tritons opened their campaign with a solid 75-60 victory over No. 12 Delta College (Mich.).

Lakefield native Ashley Kruse, who played for Jackson County Central in high school, contributed nine points and 13 rebounds in the game for the Tritons -- seven of her rebounds coming on the offensive glass.

In its quarterfinal matchup on Thursday against No. 4 Johnson County (Kan.), IC faced a 15-point deficit in the second half before rallying for a thrilling 59-57 victory.

The Cavaliers were ranked the No. 1 team in the nation in the pre-tournament national polls.

Kruse had nine points, seven rebounds and four assists in the game.

In their game against Pima on Friday, the Tritons almost came back to win after trailing by as many as 18 points in the second half, but were unable to score a last-second basket to complete the comeback, falling 69-68.

Pima was the No. 2 ranked team in the national polls.

Parkland won the third-place matchup 78-68, with Kruse contributing six points, five rebounds and four assists.

The Cobras ended the season with a 34-3 record.

Iowa Central was at a disadvantage to both Pima and Parkland due to the fact that the team had to play the tournament in four straight days, whereas the Aztecs and Cobras were both given an off day on Wednesday.

Carlson said that fatigue was a huge factor throughout the tournament for his team.

"We're about eight players deep -- we had quite a few injuries this year," Carlson said. "We lost some very good players to injury. We normally like to play nine and ten, but with our injury situation we were pretty much forced to play eight kids. When you're trying to play eight kids over a four-day stretch, it just kind of compounds things as far as the fatigue end of it."

Kruse -- who played in front of family members for much of the tournament, including her parents and two sisters -- has reached the end of her career with the Tritons, but will likely continue playing basketball at a four-year college next year.

There were a number of representatives from four-year colleges in attendance at the tournament that got the opportunity to see her play.

"We got a lot of exposure for our players, which is big," Carlson said. "There were probably 30 to 40 four-year colleges there in attendance watching. I only have two sophomores, so Ashley and (Nyakor Duop) both got a lot of exposure from it."

Iowa Central finished the season with a 30-6 overall record.