It became a little more dramatic than they would have liked, but Monday night, the Bees made it official. St. Ambrose is returning to the NAIA Division II Women's Basketball National Championship.
The Bees earned the Midwest Collegiate Conference's automatic bid after taking out Mount Mercy 69-67 in the championship game of the league tournament Monday in Lee Lohman Arena.
Already a likely at-large candidate for the National Tournament thanks to a regular-season conference title and a what-has-now-reached 20-game winning streak, No. 13 St. Ambrose took all the guess work out of the equation. This will mark SAU's 17th trip to Nationals but the first since the 2011 season.
The 32-team National Championship, played at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa, runs from Mar. 12-18. Pairings for the event will be announced Wednesday.
But Mount Mercy (20-12) definitely made St. Ambrose earn it. The Mustangs overcame a big 14-point first half from SAU's Lauren Cash and a 14-point second-half deficit to take a 63-60 lead with just over six minutes remaining.
SAU regained its footing and scored the next seven points, the first six coming from Sydney Greiner, to regain a 67-63 lead with 1:22 to go. After Mount Mercy got back to within two, Cash hit two big shots from the line with 23 seconds left to up the lead to 69-65.
The Mustangs again got as close as two points with 15 seconds left and the Bees left the door open by missing two free throws with 12 seconds on the clock. Mount Mercy had two chances in the paint in the final seconds but neither fell, giving St. Ambrose its eighth MCC Tournament championship.
Cash finished with a game-high 24 points by hitting 9-of-13 shots from the floor. Thanks to Cash, the Bees led by as many as 15 points in the first half. But while SAU shot 51.9 percent and MMU struggled at 25.0 percent in the first half, the roles reversed in the second half. The Bees were just 10-of-25 from the field and missed 10 free throws in the second half while the Mustangs made their charge by shooting at a 64.0-percent clip.
The Bees will enter the tournament on a roll with matching regular-season and tournament conference titles along with the 20-game winning streak, tied for the third-longest in program history. SAU will learn its first-round opponent Wednesday on a live and free video-stream selection show on www.naia.org at 7 p.m.