ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Needing a shot of confidence after two difficult losses to nationally ranked opponents, coach Rusty Allen’s Tabor Bluejays got just that Saturday night with a 71-58 win over the University of Saint Mary.
“This was a good win for us and we needed it,” a relaxed Allen said after the game.
Tabor wasted no time proving who the aggressor would be as Jill Hein scored just 28 seconds into the game, giving the Bluejays a lead they’d never relinquish.
Saint Mary, who entered the game at 3-4 in the conference and 9-5 overall, was deceptively good as its three-point loss to Sterling College two nights earlier proved.
But leaving little to chance, the Bluejays struck early and often and built a double-digit lead at 17-6 with 14:53 to play in the half.
“We really had a great start and built that lead,” Allen said. “Our defense in the first eight to 10 minutes of the game set the tone, getting us several easy opportunities on offense.”
Erica Hemmert returned to the form that earned her KCAC Freshman of the Year honors last year by scoring nine straight points in the early run-and finished with a game-high 22.
“I thought Erica just relaxed and looked for a variety of opportunities,” Allen said. “So many times her game is focused on just the drive, but I keep working with her in practice to see that’s not all there is to her game.”
Leading by 11 points, the Bluejays continued applying pressure on the Spires, and eventually constructed a 31-13 with 6:18 to play in the first half.
Sparking the Tabor surge was a relentless defense that flustered Saint Mary and took the team out of its offensive flow.
The result was 16 first-half Spire turnovers, 10 Bluejay steals -five by ever freshman Jessica Vineyard-and just 36 percent field-goal accuracy.
Allen said his team flew to the ball, but also said the KCAC’s scheduling format was a factor.
“We get all this prep time and we’re really rested up for our Thursday games, but we only have one day to get ready for the Saturday game,” Allen said. “Saint Mary was at home Thursday and had to travel here tonight. It’s a lot easier to have your energy if you’re playing at home.”
Tabor eventually settled for a 35-19 lead at the intermission. The Bluejays connected on 47 percent of their field-goal tries.
In the second half, Saint Mary battled back on the strong shoulders of 6-foot post Kim Hankins. Hankins dominated the paint, scoring 14 points in the second half and 22 in the game.
“They really hurt us inside,” Allen said.
The Spires cut Tabor’s lead 42-37 with 12:37 to play in the game.
“I never felt like we were able to stop them in the second half,” Allen said. “They still missed once in a while, but it wasn’t because we stopped them.”
With the Spires breathing down its neck, Tabor looked to its veterans to fend off the rally.
Rachelle Wertenberger and Hemmert responded with timely 3-point baskets in the next five minutes to key a 16-6 surge that boosted Tabor lead’s back to 15 points at 58-43 with 7:30 to play.
“Rachelle has been hitting some big 3-point shots for us when we’ve needed them lately,” Allen said.
With the lead back to a comfortable margin, the Bluejays coasted home with a 71-58 win that evened their season record at 9-9 and pushed their conference mark to 3-5.
Allen said despite Saint Mary’s physical presence, he was pleased with his team’s ability to out-rebound the Spires, 37-33 .
“The fact we out-rebounded them and grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, that’s a pretty big key to this game for us when you consider how big they were,” he said. “I feel really good about that.”
Vineyard continued her rebounding prowess, leading the team with nine boards while fellow freshman Donya Anderson added five.
Besides Hemmert’s 22 points, Hein scored 13 and Angela Kroeker 10.
Tabor made 43.3 percent of its shots for the game, while Saint Mary finished at 42 percent on the strength of its inside play.
In the end, the game turned on the Bluejays’ pressure defense, hustle determination.
“This was a good win for us and, hopefully, we can build off of it,” Allen said. “Hopefully, we can put the hammer down, as they say.”
Southwestern-It’s never easy to lose a game, but when victory is within reach and it slips through the fingers, the loss hurts even more.
Thursday night, the Bluejays had 10-ranked Southwestern on the ropes with an 11-point lead, only to lose a heart-breaker, 67-66.
“Yes, we proved we’re a very good basketball team- maybe even a team that can compete with anybody in the nation at our level,” coach Rusty Allen said afterward. “But we’d already proven that so that just doesn’t count. We’ve got to learn to win in these circumstances.”
The Bluejays started out playing arguably their best basketball of the season as Tabor raced to a 16-7 lead in the first four minutes.
“We were really ready to play,” Allen said. “We had good practices this week and I thought we were ready both mentally and physically.”
But drawing upon the skills that has earned them a 14-2 record, the Moundbuilders put together a 14-3 run and grabbed a 21-19 lead with 7:06 left in the half.
Spearheading the run was last years was Niki Nicholas, last year’s KCAC co-player of the year, who dropped in 10 first-half points, including six for six free throws.
Southwestern twice built an eight-point lead in the first half, the last one being 33-25 with just 1:59 remaining in the half.
Tabor scored the final six points of the half to chop Southwestern’s lead to two at intermission.
“I felt like we had a good game plan,” Allen said. “We felt like their physical strength on the inside was their team strength. So, instead of pressuring them real hard and denying like we sometimes do, we felt it’d be wiser to be more conservative.
“We wanted to make them shoot over an outstretched hand, and we did have some effectiveness.”
The Bluejays completed a 12-0 run by scoring the first six points of the second half to take a four-point lead.
A key ingredient to Tabor’s run was its aggressive rebounding, which led to 12 second-chance points in the contest.
Leading the way was senior Angela Kroeker, who led the team with eight rebounds, and Jill Hein, who provided a tough matchup problem for Southwestern with her strength, quickness and jumping ability.
But when Hein picked up her fourth foul with 16 minutes left in the game, Allen lost an important weapon. Even so, the Bluejays actually increased their lead while she was on the bench.
“We wanted to spread the court and get the ball to the basket-and we did that a lot,” Allen said. “As a result, we ended up with several wide open 3-point shots. Some of them went in, some of them didn’t.”
Two did drop through were back-to-back bombs by Rachelle Wertenberger. The result was a quick six points and Tabor’s largest lead of the game, 59-48, with 9:16 to play.
The Moundbuilders methodically chipped away at the Bluejay lead over the next eight minutes, thanks in part to mental lapses by Tabor resulting in turnovers and missed free-throw opportunities.
When Nicholas hit a short jumper with 1:00 to play, the lead was down to a single point.
Allen called a timeout, but a Bluejay turnover spoiled Allen’s plans and gave the Moundbuilders a chance to recapture the lead-which they did when Whitney Corley drove the lane and scored with 32 seconds to play.
But Tabor still had time to respond. The Bluejays worked the ball around the horn for a good shot, which Erica Hemmert took from 10 feet out.
The WaKeeny native calmly nailed the jumper to give Tabor a 66-65 lead with 13 seconds to play.
But just as quickly, Southwestern raced down the court and Nicholas hit the game-winner with just two seconds to play and broke the hearts of the Bluejays in the process.
“We have to learn to win when this happens again-because it will happen again,” Allen said. “The conference is so good that even if we play as good as we did tonight and build a 10-point lead against a really good team, they are going to make a run.”
Hemmert led the way for the Bluejays with 16 points, while Angela Kroeker added 12 points, and Hein scored 11 points before fouling out.
Nicholas, who came into the contest averaging 15.8 per game, had a game-high 22.
Tabor hit 33.7 percent of its field goals while Southwestern connected on 41.1 percent.
The Bluejays won the battle of the boards, 43-36, with Kroeker and Donya Anderson both grabbing eight.
The free-throw line provided the final margin of difference. Southwestern made 17 of 22 attempts,while Tabor managed only 14 of 22.
“It came down to making some really foolish mistakes in the last 61/2 minutes of the game and missing some key free throws,” Allen said. “We should have won the game-the game was ours to give away and we gave it.
Coming-The Bluejays hit the road this week with games at Friends University on Thursday and at Kansas Wesleyan on Saturday. Game time is 6 p.m. on Thursday and 5 p.m.on Saturday.