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Celebration City

Members of the UW-River Falls women's hockey team hoist the O'Brien Cup after earning the hardware by defeating UW-Stevens Point, 5-3 Sunday, to clinch the NCHA Tournament championship and earn the conference's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. Bob Burrows photo

Five different Falcons scored goals and goaltender Cassi Campbell made 29 saves, including some big stops late in the game, as the UW-River Falls women's hockey team won the NCHA's O'Brien Cup Championship with a 5-3 victory over UW-Stevens Point Sunday afternoon at Hunt Arena.

With the victory comes the NCHA Tournament championship and the league's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament set to begin with quarterfinal action March 13-14. The complete field will be set this weekend.

It's the third O'Brien Cup win for UW-RF and its only coach in team history, Joe Cranston. The Falcons last won the tournament title in 2003 and Cranston said this year's win was long overdue.

"Feels great," he said after Sunday's game. "It's just got to sink in here a little bit. It's been too long, six years, so it feels good."

Junior co-captain Stefanie Schmitz described winning the league title as "awesome."

"Probably the best feeling ever," she said.

The Pointers jumped on the board for the only goal of the first period Sunday but the Falcons answered with goals from Katie Flanagan and Laura Conrad to take a 2-1 lead after two.

UW-RF extended its lead to 3-1 on a shorthanded goal by Jamie Briski at 3:38 of the third period but the Pointers cut it to 3-2 just over six minutes later.

Jessica Thompson made it a 4-2 score in favor of the Falcons midway through the third period and the Pointers pulled to within a goal a 4-3 with just over five minutes remaining, but Abby Sunderman sealed things for UW-RF with an empty-net goal with 31 seconds remaining.

Campbell stopped nine of the 11 shots she faced in the third period, including a sprawling stop with just under four minutes remaining to preserve a one goal lead. Briski said she was surprised to see her teammate make the saves she made on Sunday.

"I don't know where she got those moves, but she played so good," Briski said. "She was unbelievable."

Pointers goalie D'Andra Phillips, a 5-footer, made the Falcons earn every goal they scored, but could not equal the performance of Campbell at the other end of the rink.

"Both goalies were awesome tonight," Cranston said. "They made great saves and were just huge."

Campbell said the game brought out the best in the two goaltenders.

"I think we both knew that we needed to play well in the most important game," she said. "We came and brought our best."

Cranston also praised the play of Conrad, who had a goal and assist in the win while playing with an injured shoulder.

"She scored a goal by just driving to the net," Cranston said. "She was playing with one good arm all day. She won all the battles on the boards for us and just had a great game for us."

Cranston said there were a number of momentum swings in the game, pointing to what turned out to be the game-winner by Thompson as the biggest.

"Every goal was huge," he said. "Whoever scored would have the momentum and it was big that we were able to answer right after they scored."

Playing in its third game in as many days, Stevens Point gave the Falcons all they could handle, Cranston said.

"We score and are up by a couple, then Stevens Point would run out of energy, but would come back," he said. "I don't know where they found the energy, but they had us on our heels at the end."

Briski said the victory was a result of all the effort put in this season.

"Amazing," she said. "We put in a lot of hard work and we deserve it."

Campbell, who made 22 of her 29 saves in the final two periods, agreed.

"Feels absolutely amazing," she said. "All of our hard work has paid off and this is proof right there."