COEUR d'ALENE - They played hard, worked together, fought through a brutal bracket and bested any team that stood in their way.
And when they returned to Coeur d'Alene on Sunday morning, the North Idaho College women's basketball team carried a national championship trophy into Christianson Gym.
"We couldn't really believe that it just happened," said 19-year-old Kiki Edwards-Teasley, a talented sophomore forward. "I still can't believe it. It still hasn't settled. I don't think it will for a while."
NIC beat Trinity Valley (Texas) 90-81 on Saturday night in Salina, Kan., earning the school's first-ever NJCAA women's basketball national title. The Lady Cardinals came home to a hero's welcome, greeted by friends, family and fans as their van pulled up to the gym.
For close to an hour, the celebration continued inside.
"You don't really know from watching (the team) what they had to push through," said assistant coach Carey Carlson. "In that championship game, they were exhausted. We just pushed through, pushed through. The heart that they had was incredible."
To reach the final contest, NIC beat top-ranked Pensacola State College (Fla.) in the semifinals - a squad long on talent, speed and athleticism. The Cardinals stuck to their game plan and cut through Pensacola's smothering press.
"We never thought that they were faster than us, or better than us," head coach Chris Carlson said. "We said, as soon as we turn that corner, as soon as we get an edge on 'em, we're taking it to that rim."
North Idaho College, a fifth-seed, whipped No. 1 seed Pensacola 90-75.
"That's one of the greatest wins I've been a part of," Carlson said.
A former NIC player under legendary coach Rolly Williams, Bill Turbin of Hayden cheered on the Cardinals as they marched toward a national crown. The girls were always humble, Turbin said, and always willing to prepare for whatever challenges lay ahead.
"A real team effort. And I believe they were also blessed," he added. "It was amazing to see them pull it off."
Sophomore Kama Griffits, who scored 22 points in the final game against Trinity Valley, earned tournament MVP honors. Carlson, having just completed his seventh season at NIC, was named national coach of the year.
"I just think it's a good team effort to get an award like that," he said, passing much of the credit to his assistant coaches.
Carlson will soon be on the recruiting trail, but for now, with the weight of the NJCAA tournament finally lifted, he can savor that championship feeling - if only for a short while.
"It's just unbelievable. We've been driving all night, and you just have this moment, like, 'Oh my gosh, we did it,'" Carlson said. "The effort that it takes to actually get it done; it's like you're just spent. We can really start feeling it now. We actually did it."
Freshman forward Julia Salmio, a native of Vantaa, Finland, is excited about next season and continuing her career at NIC.
"So cool," she said of the title. "I have never had this kind of championship. And it's real nice that so many people support us, and came here today."
Edwards-Teasley won't be back next year - she'll most likely be playing for a Division I school. But Kiki ended her NIC career on a high note: 17 points against Trinity Valley, her final baskets as a Cardinal.
"I will miss it a lot. We all grew up playing against each other, and we've known each other since junior high," she said. "We really wanted this. We set our goal, and we're glad we achieved it."