ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
The wait is over.
After nearly a decade of near misses, blowouts and everything in between, the Tabor College women defeated the 13th-ranked Sterling Warriors for the first time in 28 tries by a 67-58 margin Saturday night in Sterling.
In the process, the 20th-ranked Bluejays positioned themselves for a run at their first Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference title since 1992.
“It’s a monkey off our back,” a smiling Tabor coach Rusty Allen said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve beaten Sterling, and in all honesty, it’s not very often teams come in here and win.”
From the outset, it was obvious the days when Tabor viewed the Warriors as all but invincible were over.
“We talked about confidence a lot coming into this game, and I thought we played with tremendous confidence,” Allen said. “Pure and simple, this was a confidence builder and it puts us in the driver’s seat (in the KCAC race).”
After Erica Hemmert scored on a drive just 14 second into the game, Sterling scored 10 of the next 12 points to build a 10-4 lead with 13:17 to play in the half.
The remainder of the half belonged to the women in blue, as Tabor outscored the home team 13-5 over the next four minutes to grab a 17-15 lead.
Little did the large crowd assembled to celebrate Sterling head coach Lonnie Kruse’s 500th victory-an 80-53 win over Kansas Wesleyan Thursday night-know, but the Warriors would never lead again the rest of the game.
While the Bluejays were shredding the Warrior defense with 61 percent field-goal accuracy in the opening 20 minutes, Tabor used an active zone defense to befuddle the vaunted Sterling attack.
“We decided to change things up on defense from what we normally do,”Allen said. “We played zone and I thought we played it well.
“We covered their shooters, we were quick to react to their interior passes and got a lot of hands on balls. One of the things that’s really dangerous about playing a zone is rebounding, but we did a good job. We were really active on the boards.”
When the first half ended, Tabor led, 31-24, and had communicated to everyone in Gleason Center that the Bluejays were playing to win.
Tabor showed no sign of an impending swoon in the second half as Kelly Pavlik drained a 3-pointer to push the lead to 33-24.
Four minutes later, when Erica Dechant scored off a Hemmert assist, the lead had ballooned to 12 points, 41-29, with 14:17 to play.
“This year we’ve had several games where we played a good first half and not such a good second half,” Allen said. “I really challenged them that in this game we can’t afford that. We lose this game if that happens.”
Leading the second-half charge was sophomore Donya Anderson, who played her best game of the year.
After four first half points, Anderson scorched the Warriors with 5-for-6 shooting and a perfect 2-for-2 from the line for 12 second-half points.
“Donya played up to her potential,” Allen said. “She passed the ball well, she rebounded well, and she shot the ball well-I was really pleased with Donya.”
The Bluejays built their largest lead of the half of 13 points on two occasions, the last being 59-46 with 2:49 remaining.
But Sterling wouldn’t roll over and play dead.
The Warriors scored nine of the next 11 points to trim a once comfortable Bluejay lead to just six points at 61-55 with 40 second remaining.
But Anderson scored a field goal and Hemmert and Stacie Herman each added two free throws to preserve the victory.
Herman and Anderson each scored 16 points to lead Tabor.
“I thought Stacie played an outstanding game,” Allen said. “She took great care of the ball and made good decisions.”
Tabor’s other double-digit scorer was freshman Katie Fast with 11 points. Perhaps just as important, she effectively patrolled the lane on the defensive end.
“Katie did a really nice job neutralizing them on the inside and she finished plays on offense,” Allen said.
Tabor shot 44 percent from the floor in the second half to finished the game with 52 percent shooting (26-50).
Sterling made just 20 of 59 shots (34 percent), including nine of 23 (39 percent) from beyond the 3-point arc.
The Bluejays won the rebounding battle, 39-35. Point guard Herman had a team-high six.
With the win, Tabor maintained its share of first place in the KCAC with Friends at 7-1. The Bluejays improved to 14-4 overall.
Allen said the night couldn’t have turned out much better.
“Defensively, we couldn’t have played any better than we did Thursday night (in an overtime win over Bethany),” he said. “But offensively we took care of the ball and we were focused.
“If we’re going to win the conference championship, we had to win this game-that’s the way we felt.”
Bethany-If Tabor’s team was a demolition-derby entry, chances are it would have been running on three flat tires, dragging a bumper, had its body crushed and had steam coming out of from under the hood by the time Thursday’s game with Bethany was over.
But Tabor was the last car still moving, overcoming horrible shooting and numerous turnovers to defeat Bethany, 48-43, in overtime.
“I think that’s the hardest we’ve had to work for a win,” coach Rusty Allen said. “I don’t think it was pretty, but I wouldn’t call it luck either.
“We couldn’t get anything going, but they couldn’t either.”
After both teams struggled to put points on the board early, Jill Hein connected on a 3-point shot with 15:05 to give Tabor a 9-6 lead.
Tabor went on to build a lead as big as as eight points in the opening half before a pair of Dallas Archer charity tosses in the final seconds cut the margin to 21-15 at halftime.
Allen said defense was the key to the game for both teams.
“Defensively and rebounding, we were really good, but offensively we were really bad,” he said. “It was two completely opposite games from the defensive to the offensive end and that doesn’t happen very often. Usually, if you can’t get anything on offense, you end up letting down on defense. But we didn’t do that.
“I warned our players before the game that Bethany was going to be one of the toughest teams we’ve faced defensively this season and it turned out to be a real physical game,” he added. “That neutralized the game.”
By halftime, each team had committed 14 turnovers. Tabor hit 34 percent of its shots and Bethany 26 percent.
The second half began with baskets by Donya Anderson and Erica Hemmert to open a double-digit lead for Tabor at 25-15.
But the January chill soon hit Tabor’s shooting touch and Bethany put together a 22-4 run over the next nine minutes to take what seemed like a commanding 37-29 lead with 9:04 to play.
Allen called a time and implored his team to apply aggressive full-court pressure.
The tactic worked.
Bethany scored just three points in the final nine minutes while Tabor rallied for 13 to send the game into overtime tied at 40.
Fueling the resurgence was Tabor’s work on the boards, especially on the offensive end.
“What I probably liked the most is our overall rebounding effort,” Allen said. “We had 16 offensive rebounds, but we only scored four points off of them.We just couldn’t put the ball into the basket.”
Once in overtime, Tabor made a living at the free-throw line, hitting six of eight. Katie Fast added a basket off an inbounds play for the 48-43 win.
Tabor connected on just 16 of 62 field-goal attempts including a dismal 6-for-33 (18.2 percent) in the second half.
“That’s unbelievable to win hitting 18 percent in the second half,” Allen said. “But that meant our defense kept us in it.
Bethany only scored six points in the final 14 minutes.
Leading the way for Tabor were freshmen Stacie Herman and Fast, who both contributed 12 points. Hemmert added 10.
Tabor made 14 of 21 free throws (67 percent) while Bethany struggled made only five of 14 (35.6 percent), and missed several crucial ones down the stretch.
The Swedes committed 32 turnovers compared to 25 for Tabor.
Tabor won the rebounding battle, 47-46; Hemmert had 12.