ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
The Tabor women continued to build momentum last week with an impressive win over Bethel on Saturday after pounding Bethany on Thursday.
Against Bethel, Tabor’s tenacious defense, fast becoming the team’s trademark, was key to a 61-41 win, the Bluejays’ fifth straight.
Tabor limited the Threshers to just 34 percent shooting from the floor and forced 23 Bethel turnovers, which Tabor converted into 19 points.
“We’ve really improved defensively,” coach Rusty Allen said. “We were really good almost at the start of the season, but I think we’ve improved significantly in some real key areas.
“We’re positioning ourselves off the ball just right and then we’re reading the court and reacting to it on time so that when somebody gets a window of opportunity, our team defense takes it away.”
Except for a 2-2 tie, the Tabor owned the lead the entire contest.
The first half set the pattern for the whole game. Tabor sizzled from the field, hitting 54 percent of its shots (15-28) while limiting the Threshers to just under 30 percent (8-27).
Tabor took its first double-digit lead in the opening stanza when Erica Hemmert’s field goal put Tabor on top, 18-8, with 7:51 left.
Keying the surge was sophomore Jill Hein, whose recent productivity put her on pace for all-conference honors. Hein used a variety of moves on her way to 10 first-half points.
Leading 25-17 with 2:51 to play, Tabor finished the half with a flurry. First, Hemmert canned a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Angela Kroeker followed with a short jumper off a Hein assist, and the half ended when Hein nailed a 20-foot 3-pointer with 10 seconds remaining to push the Bluejay lead to 33-17.
The Bluejays started the second half sluggishly, enabling an 11-2 Bethel run in the first five minutes that whittled Tabor’s lead to 35-28 with 14:41.
“We were looking for shots too early in our possessions instead of working at it,” Allen said. “We just didn’t make enough extra passes at the beginning of the half. But fortunately we continued to play really tough defensively so their run only turned into a seven-point margin, still in our favor.”
The offensive struggle continued, as Tabor still held a slim 39-32 lead with 8:19 left in the game.
Allen and the the Bluejays looked to their seniors to fuel some momentum.
First, Rachelle Wertenberger hit two free throws, then nailed an arching rainbow from 22 feet out to put Tabor on top 44-32.
“(Rachelle) really has a knack for hitting the timely 3-pointer,” Allen said. “That was a bomb. She was way out there-it had a ton of arc and hit nothing but net.”
Fellow senior Angela Kroeker then drew the defense and hit Jessica Vineyard for an easy score. She followed that with a drive to the hope for another basket.
“One thing I liked about Angela more than anything else on offense was just her willingness to step up and play,” Allen said. “She was focused. She believed she could take her defender.”
With their lead back to a comfortable 17 points at 53-36 with 3:39 to play, the Bluejays got consecutive 3-pointers down the stretch by Wertenberger and Dana Hanson and cruised home with the win.
Allen said the second half was a struggle offensively, but the Bluejays still managed to do what it took for the win.
“It took us almost 11 minutes in the second half to get settled in offensively, and I don’t think we really ever did get into a rhythm of execution,” Allen said. “What we ended up doing was beating them to the basket on some isolations and then we got some momentum built up.”
Balanced scoring and defense were the cornerstones to the victory. Five players scored in double figures: Wertenberger with 15 points, Hein 12, Hemmert 11, Kroeker 10 and Vineyard 10.
Shelly Haug led the Thresher with 12 points on 4-for-10 shooting.
Tabor hit 46 percent from the field while Bethel hit 34 percent, including 0-for-15 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Tabor was outrebounded 40-31, but Allen said it wasn’t as bad as the number appeared.
“They’re one of the best rebounding teams we’ve played,” he said. “They are a really a physical group of players.”
Allen said the night proved to be worth battling the icy conditions.
“It was a sound win for us,” he said. “It was a good win on an odd day with all the weather problems. In the back of a lot of our players minds, we wondered if we’d even play this game.
“There were some distractions and I thought we faced up to them well.”
Bethany-A tree is only as strong as its trunk, and the Bethany Swedes have a strong, tall timber inside in the person of 6-foot-2-inch All-American center Jill Nech, who burned the Bluejays with 24 points and 18 rebounds in Bethany’s come-from-behind victory in December.
This time, though, the Bluejays went after the root of the Bethany team, limiting Nech to just 11 points (six shots) and nine rebounds as Tabor felled the mighty Swedes for the first time in 22 meetings, 61-37.
“It was definitely different playing Bethany this time,” coach Rusty Allen said. “Our players thought we were the better team even when we got beat over there. We talked a lot about that.
“Our game plan against Nech was really effective,” Allen said. “We kept her double-teamed anytime she caught the ball in a threatening area of the court. She was pretty frustrated.”
Nech, in fact, didn’t score until the 5:29 mark of the first half. By that time, Tabor was on top, 19-9.
The Bluejays began the game looking like a team on a mission, reeling off eight points on a pair of baskets from Jill Hein and Angela Kroeker.
Bethany scored with 16:11 to play in the half and eventually cut the deficit to 10-7. But the Swedes couldn’t get any closer the rest of the night.
At the core of Tabor’s first half domination was its defense. Tabor harassed the Swedes into 16 turnovers that the Bluejays converted into 17 points.
Tabor took 35 shots and made 14 of them compared to Bethany, who only managed 18 shots the entire half, hitting just six.
While Tabor didn’t make all its shots, the Bluejays did grab nine offensive rebounds.
“That’s all about effort and intelligence,” Allen said. “It’s more about heart than anything else.”
When the smoke cleared, the Bluejays owned a 30-15 advantage at the break.
Tabor began the second half by stretching its lead to 19 points, 37-18, with 15:51 to play.
But Tabor ran into a cold front in Tabor Gymnasium over the next four minutes as Bethany put together a 14-2 run to cut the gap to 39-32 with 11:33 to play.
But Allen and his players didn’t panic.
“We were still getting good shots but they rimmed out,” Allen said.
After an Allen timeout, Tabor went on its own scoring binge, rolling up 17 straight points to push the score to 56-32 with 5:48 to play.
Keying the rally was the tough inside play of freshman Jessica Vineyard, who went toe to toe with Nech and came out on top.
“She really took it to Nech and did it at the right time,” Allen said. “She didn’t force it. She waited for the isolation.”
Defense shone the brightest for Tabor in the victory.
“Every time I asked them to make an adjustment, we did it immediately,” Allen said. “Our timeouts tonight were extremely effective. Tonight we gained an advantage out of every timeout, even when they called one.”
In the end, Tabor forced 30 Bethany turnovers which netted the Bluejays 31 points.
Jill Hein led a balanced scoring attack with 12 points, but Tabor had seven other players score at least six points in the contest.
Nech was the high-point scorer for Bethany with 11 points, six under her conference-leading 17-point average.
Tabor hit 44 percent of their shots for the game (27-62) while limiting Bethany to just 36 percent (13-36).
“There comes a time where we’ll peak defensively, but this is a time of the year that we want to do that,” Allen said. “I would say there are some things we can improve upon, but we’re nearing the point where I want us to be on defense.”
Coming-With its two wins last week, Tabor improved to 7-5 in the KCAC and 13-9 overall. Tabor has a pair of road games this week against Sterling and McPherson.
“We’ll go over to Sterling and see what we can do,” Allen said. “It’d be nice to go over there and get a win. Our team is on a roll.”