BLOOMINGTON — The bus ride back from Wheaton after the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Tournament last season was a long but memorable one for the Illinois Wesleyan women's basketball team.
Nina Anderson and Rebekah Ehresman had plenty of time to stew over the Titans' four-point loss.
"Bekah and I said no matter what we do we are not losing to Wheaton again in the championship game," Anderson said. "I think that was in our heads the entire game. We will win this game no matter what. It was all in or nothing."
Anderson and Ehresman brought that resolve to the final four minutes of Saturday's rematch and spearheaded a rally that produced a 62-60 victory over the Thunder on Saturday before a Shirk Center crowd of 1,200.
It was IWU's first CCIW Tournament title since 2012.
"When we started this season I told the girls it will be Wheaton and it will be us in the finals if we do what we should do all season long," Wesleyan coach Mia Smith said. "And we've done that. Just an incredible game. Two fantastic teams, and I feel really blessed we're out in front of it."
The 16th-ranked Titans (24-3) earned the CCIW's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament while breaking a string of three straight title game defeats.
"All three years I've been here all I wanted was to win the conference tournament get that automatic qualifier," said Ehresman. "It feels like we've been working so hard for so long.
"To finally win, especially after digging ourselves a hole and having to climb back out, I can't describe how amazing this feels right now."
Ehresman scored 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds, and Anderson registered seven of her 11 in the final five minutes as IWU narrowly surpassed its previous low point total for the season of 60.
The Titans trailed 57-53 wtih 3:50 remaining before two Kelsey Walsberg free throws and an Anderson 17-foot jumper tied it.
A pair of Ehresman free throws at the 1:17 mark handed IWU its first lead since 40-39 and two more foul shots from Anderson with 16 seconds showing boosted the Titan margin to 61-57.
"The second half we really buckled down and realized we have to play more aggressive," Ehresman said. "We were a little bit timid, even early in the third quarter but especially the first half. We know Wheaton is big. But with the conference tournament on the line, we've got to give it a shot."
Wheaton's Devin Kyler banked in a 3-pointer with eight-tenths of a second left, and IWU's Molly McGraw tacked on a free throw for the final margin.
The Thunder (22-5) saw a 16-game winning streak snapped. Wheaton will be a strong contender for an NCAA at-large bid.
Kelly Lawson paced the Thunder, which led 47-40 early in the final quarter, with 13 points. Kyler chipped in 11 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
McGraw added 11 points for the Titans, who survived 37.5 shooting from the floor. Wesleyan finished with 13 turnovers, eight fewer than the visitors.
Wheaton outscored IWU, 10-1, over the final three and a half minutes of the second quarter to take its lone lead of the first half at 24-22.
The Titans managed just eight baskets in 30 shots over the initial 20 minutes, missed all six of its 3-point tries and coaxed in only 6 of 13 free throws.