ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Kansas Wesleyan and Tabor came into Saturday at the opposite ends of the conference spectrum-KW in last place with just one victory, Tabor in first at 4-1.
The difference was obvious. Tabor demoralized its opponent with a quick lead and sprinted to an 88-68 victory.
Barely five minutes into the game, Tabor led 16-5 on its way to a 49-30 halftime lead.
“I think that was our best half of the season offensively,” coach Rusty Allen said. “We played well together, we passed the ball well and made good decisions when to press for transition baskets and when to execute our half-court offense.”
Even though a much-improved KW team cut the margin to nine points at 30-21 with just over nine minutes left in the half, a 16-3 Tabor run over the next six minutes swelled the Bluejay lead to 46-24 before Tabor settled for a 49-30 halftime lead.
The Bluejays hit 17 of 29 field goal attempts (58.6 percent), including four of seven from behind the arc, and 11 of 13 free throws.
“When you shoot almost 60 percent from the field, that always builds your confidence and momentum,” Allen said.
Freshman Stacie Herman was the catalyst once again, despite playing on a sprained ankle.
“I really like Stacie’s game,” Allen said. “There may be better dribblers and better shooters than Stacie, but she does everything well and she is absolutely gifted at decision making. And she is extremely coachable.”
But the Coyotes, under the leadership of first-coach Gordon Reimer, proved to be resilient.
Facing a 55-34 second-half deficit, the Coyotes put together a 16-4 run to whittle the deficit to 59-50 with just over 10 minutes remaining.
Allen said its natural for a team to relax when it has a sizeable lead.
“Sometimes you think it’s too easy and you don’t have to work as hard,” he said. “But I tip my hat to their team-for the level of ability they have, they played a great game.”
Much like central Kansans who warmed after the recent ice storm, Allen turned up the heat on his stagnant offense by employing a full-court press.
“We needed to create some momentum in the second half when they made that run,” he said. “I thought our press was much more effective in the second half because we have better depth and I think they got tired.”
Forcing 11 turnovers, Tabor quickly reestablished its dominance, bolting to a 69-53 lead less than two minutes later.
Keying the surge was Erica Dechant, playing her first game in a Tabor uniform after transferring from Independence Community College at the semester break. She nailed a long 3-point shot and had an assist on a basket by Kelly Pavlik.
“She’s a nice addition,” Allen said of his junior shooting guard. “You can’t doubt her shooting ability, but she’s still trying to find her way. She’s only practiced about five times so, for the circumstances, I thought she just did a great job.”
With the lead safely in hand, Tabor cruised to the 20-point win, raising its record to 11-4 overall and 5-1 in KCAC play. The Bluejays are tied for the conference lead with Sterling and Friends.
Pavlik led Tabor with with 19 points. Donya Anderson added 13, Herman 12 and Erica Hemmert 11 as Tabor hit 48.4 percent of its second-half shots and 53.3 percent for the game.
Wesleyan, after a 36 percent first half, hit 52 percent from the floor in the second stanza and 43.6 percent for the game.
“They hit some really tough shots in the second half,” Allen said. “But I was glad it was a competitive game because it keeps us on track. We couldn’t just sit back and breathe easy and say it was a laugher. We knew we were in a battle.”
Tabor compiled 21 assists, led by Shannon Kroeker’s five.
Tabor made 16 of 20 charity tosses while KW made 14 of 21.
The Coyotes were led in scoring by Ashley Coker with 16.
“I feel good about this game, particularly the effort we gave,” Allen said. “We put better than 30 minutes of good effort in tonight. In fact, I would say great effort.
“It surprises me we gave up as many points as we did, but we let them get too many offensive rebounds (17), but I liked the way we guarded.”
Bethel-Ice forced the Tabor College games with Bethel to be moved to Hillsboro Thursday night because Thresher Gymnasium was without lights or heat.
But it felt just as frigid at Tabor Gymnasium early in the game, as the Bluejays scored just 18 first-half points on 24 percent shooting.
But All-KCAC standout Erica Hemmert heated up in the second half, finishing with a career-high 29 points to lead No. 23-ranked Tabor to a 58-46 win.
Coach Rusty Allen said he wasn’t surprised by his team’s start after being idle since Dec. 11.
“I told my players that it really didn’t concern me their shooting was rusty, but I was concerned we weren’t taking care of the basketball,” he said.
In an early seesaw battle, the Bluejays and Threshers exchanged the lead eight times during the first half before Bethel took a 19-14 lead with just over two minutes remaining.
A basket by Donya Anderson with under a minute to play and a buzzer beater by Hemmert whittled the lead to one point by halftime.
“Our offensive rebounding kept us in the game in the first half,” Allen said. “We certainly didn’t make any shots or execute very well in the half. We knew at halftime we hadn’t played a good half of basketball.”
Although Allen said halftime adjustments were minimal, they proved effective.
“We wanted to build momentum after halftime so we went to a press-we pressed harder in the second half than we did in the first half but it also doesn’t hurt when you’re making shots.”
No one benefitted more than Hemmert, who poured in 24 second-half points including 3-of-4 from beyond the 3-point arc.
“When we get that kind of leadership and production out of Erica Hemmert, we’re pretty hard to deal with,” Allen said. “She did more than just shoot the ball well-she played her rear off in the second half and gave us tremendous leadership.
After Jill Hein scored to put Tabor on top, 20-19, with 19:31 to play, Hemmert scored 13 of Tabor’s next 15 points over a seven minute stretch to build a 35-25 lead.
Bethel showed grit, though, eventually slicing the Bluejay lead to five points, 47-42, with just under four minutes left.
But Hemmert stepped up again, scoring a basket, assisting on another and nailing six of seven free throws down the stretch to lead Tabor to the win.
Tabor hit 63.6 percent of its shots in the second half to finish at 40 percent (22-55) for the game.
In addition to her scoring, Hemmert led the Bluejays in rebounding (8), assists (3) and blocked shots (2).
Hein was the only other Bluejay in double figures with 10 points.
The Bluejay defense limited Bethel to just 29.8 percent shooting for the game. The Threshers were led in scoring by Jodi Wright with 11 points.
Both teams turned the ball over 18 times.
“I congratulated the team on the win,” Allen said. “We know we at least stay tied for the conference lead no matter what else happens, but the bottom line is we didn’t play very good.
“I challenged our players that we need to accept that fact and come our ready to practice to improve.”
Newman-Tabor defeated Newman University Monday night, 69-57. The Bluejays jumped to a 29-8 lead out of the blocks.
Stacie Herman led a trio of Bluejays in double figures with 15, followed by Donya Anderson with 12 and Kelly Pavlik 11.
Tabor improves to 12-4 for the season while the Newman Jets fall to 1-13.
Coming-Tabor hosts Bethany College this Thursday. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m.
Saturday the Bluejays travel to Sterling to battle the preseason conference favorites. That game will begin at 5 p. m.