ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
The Wizard of Oz would have been proud of the Tabor women Saturday in their semifinals matchup with Sterling in the KCAC post-season tournament.
The Bluejays used their brains and played intelligently, they played with courage-erasing a nine-point deficit in each half-and they played with a lot of heart.
But in the end, Sterling was the one believing “there’s no place like home” as the Warriors’ Crystal Pitts hit a 10-foot jumper with three seconds left to give her team a 62-60 win.
The loss ended Tabor’s season at 18-12.
Coach Rusty Allen was about as pleased as he could be with his team, considering the loss.
“There was a confidence on the offensive end that…I haven’t seen in my time here,” Allen said. “I’ve been waiting for that for three years.”
In the early going, Tabor looked like a team that had won 10 of its last 12 games.
Erica Hemmert’s jumper in the lane with 15:19 to play in the half tied the game at six.
But over the next four minutes, the Warriors got their offense cranked up and bolted to a 19-9 lead with 11:22 remaining.
But just when the hometown rowdies began dancing in the aisles, Tabor came back with a 10-0 run to knot the score at 19 with 6:24 to play.
“I think our comeback had a lot to do with the ability of our perimeter people to put pressure on them and to really disrupt their offense,” Allen said. “It was just getting some rhythm and believing we could do it.”
The remainder of the half was a hard-fought battle, although Sterling crept to a 32-27 lead by intermission.
Sterling extended its lead to nine points, 36-27, in the early moments of the second half. Tabor was still trailing, 38-31, with 17:28 to play when the Bluejays exhibited their most exciting stretch of basketball this season.
The result was a 20-2 run that left both Warrior players and Tabor fans gasping for breath-but for very different reasons.
Tabor rocketed to a 51-40 lead with 10:53 to play, nearly running the Warriors out of the gym with its fast break.
“I think that’s the best we’ve been at executing the fast break all year,” Allen said. “Our players were running the court hard like we always do, but I think it was a culmination of all the work we continued to do on our break, and we passed the ball better.”
Trailing by 11, Sterling coach Lonnie Kruse called a timeout to regroup his squad. Allen used the opportunity to exhort his troops.
“I told my team if we could maintain that level of execution and proficiency, we’d win the game,” Allen said. “As it turns out, we couldn’t do it.”
Illustrating why it won the regular-season championship, Sterling mounted its own rally, fueled in part by Tabor mistakes.
“We made about four or five really foolish turnovers that probably cost us the game,” Allen said. “I think we just got fatigued and made a few bad decisions in that stretch.”
Even when Tabor handled Sterling’s pressure successfully, it couldn’t buy a basket. Sterling tied the game at 53 with 5:10 to play.
During that fateful six-minute stretch, Tabor missed three 3-pointers by the narrowest of margins. Tabor finished the game hitting only one of 12 shots from beyond the arc.
“Typically, we make more than that,” Allen said. “If we’d have hit a couple of those shots, we probably would have sewn it up.”
But the door was left wide open for Sterling, and the Warriors were more than willing to walk through.
The final five minutes played out like a cat-and-mouse game.
“It was really tough knowing when to make substitutions down the stretch,” Allen said. “It was such an important game, you felt like you had to keep your best players on the court for as long as possible. You had to push the edge of the envelope as far as resting people.”
The game was tied at 55 before Tabor grabbed a 58-55 lead with 3:41 remaining. But once again Sterling battled back to tie the contest and then took a 60-58 lead with 1:43 to play.
But Jill Hein took a Rachelle Wertenberger pass on the right side and canned a 12-foot turnaround jumper to knot the score at 60 with 1:25 to play.
Both teams missed opportunities to score in the next minute. With less than a minute remaining, Tabor forced a misguided shot by Sterling. Erica Hemmert rebounded for Tabor, but was shoved out of bounds on the play.
No foul was called. Sterling was awarded possession.
This time they didn’t fail.
Pitts came around a screen, caught the ball, and drilled her 10-footer with 2.4 seconds left. It was Pitts’ only two points of the game.
The Bluejays advanced the ball to half-court and called a timeout with 0.7 seconds to play.
Hein then wrapped around a screen and launched a 25-footer from the top of the key as time expired, but the ball sailed just wide of the mark as the buzzer sounded.
“A week ago that shot went in (at Southwestern),” Allen said. “I honestly thought when she released it, it was going in.”
Hemmert led Tabor with 13 points and Donya Anderson added 12. Wertenberger, playing her final game in a Bluejay uniform, added nine points, a team-high eight rebounds, three assists and four steals.
Taylor White led Sterling with 17 points and 13 rebounds.
Tabor hit just under 40 percent from the field compared to 37 percent for Sterling.
The Bluejays had a 45-36 advantage on the boards, but turned the ball over 19 times to just 11 for Sterling.
With the season concluded, Allen said the foundation of the program is strong.
“I’m hoping we’ve established a tradition that we can continue to roll,” he added. “Its been a blessing and its been a good season.”
Allen said the leadership shown by his four seniors-Wertenberger, LaTasha Townsend, Amber McKillip and Angela Kroeker-set the tone for the future.
“They’ve set the best example possible for everyone to play as hard as you can, to be a team player and give leadership.
“Every one of these seniors is such a woman of God,” Allen added. “Their character is just incredible and they’re the type of women you hope your own daughter grows up to be like.”
Tabor entered post-season play ranked first in the KCAC and fourth in the nation in scoring defense, giving up an average of just 55.5 points per contest.
After Tabor disposed of Bethany, 61-45, Wednesday night in the quarterfinals of the KCAC post-season tournament, the Swedes couldn’t argue the validity of those statistics.
“Coach (Shawn) Winter told our women before the game to ‘defend according to your average and you’ll win,'” head coach Rusty Allen said. “We did better than our average, and we won soundly”
Initially, the Swedes showed the poise and determination which led them to an undefeated 18-0 KCAC record last season and a trip to the national tournament with a 30-3 record.
Bethany streaked to a 9-4 advantage courtesy of a 3-point basket by Stacy Lee and four points from 6-foot-1 All-American Jill Nech.
“I tip my hat to Bethany because they came out early and played hard,” Allen said.
Bethany still held a 12-8 advantage with 11:30 left in the half, but Tabor wasn’t about to let its season end.
Erica Hemmert began the resurgence when she drained a 3-point basket with 9:56 remaining, igniting a 3-point barrage in which the Bluejays connected on three more long-range missiles over the next six minutes.
Hemmert, Angela Kroeker and Rachelle Wertenberger all hit from beyond the arc to put Tabor on top, 22-17, at the 3:55 mark. It was a lead the Bluejays wouldn’t surrender the rest of the way.
Allen said a strategic adjustment during that stretch paid dividends.
“I put Rachelle at the point and told her to do everything she could to give them (Bethany) trouble,” Allen said. “She guarded them completely off the floor.”
Tabor continued to harass the Swedes, forcing 11 turnovers on the way to a 30-22 halftime advantage.
The second half wouldn’t get any better for Bethany. Even though the Swedes cut the Bluejay margin to 32-27 at the 18:28 mark, Bethany never got closer.
It was the stifling Bluejay defense that kept the Swedes at bay.
“We talked a lot about how if we play defense to our ability, we won’t have to worry about what happens at our offensive end,” Allen said. “That isn’t always true, but I thought there was truth to that tonight.
“We guarded tonight as well as one of my teams has guarded here in three years.”
Tabor’s defense limited Nech to just 10 points, well below her conference-leading average of 16.4.
“Our double teams were really effective on her,” Allen said. “Nicole (Ellis) and Donya (Anderson) have been doing really well lately.
“When Nech would spin around, we’d be right there and she’d spin right into us,” he added. “I felt really good about the way those two guarded tonight.”
The Bluejays steadily increased their lead to a game-high 17 at 52-35 with 5:47 left. This in spite making only 18 of 61 field goals, or 29.5 percent in the game.
Allen said although the offense didn’t purr like a well oiled machine, he found solace in other areas.
“We only had eight turnovers and Bethany really pressured,” he said. “While we didn’t shoot the ball well, we did execute and take care of the ball and got good looks at the basket.”
Tabor was able to control the ball down the stretch and maintain its lead, due in large part to sophomore Trixsi Odom.
“We felt like Trixsi really stepped it up in the second half,” Allen said. “They were playing off of her, and we told her to drive to the basket and force play.
“She really did a nice job of it. They were forced to foul her and she made her free throws.”
Odom hit six straight charity tosses for Tabor down the stretch as the Bluejays cruised home with the win.
Hemmert led Tabor with 18 points.
“Erica is a workhorse,” Allen said. “She always comes to play.”
Odom was the only other Tabor player to reach double figures with 11.
Lee led Bethany, who finished its season at 15-14, with 13 points.
Tabor hit 20 of 25 free throws while Bethany made five of 10.
Bethany hit 17 of 50 field goals for 34 percent, but committed 24 turnovers, which translated into 19 Bluejay points.
“We missed some open shots, but you wear down when you have to bang the whole night,” Allen said. “But it was a solid win for us with great defense.”