Perfect week keeps Bluejay women on top in KCAC

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
When 11th ranked Tabor College, riding a 12-game winning streak, traveled to Leavenworth on Saturday night to face Saint Mary, who was suffering through an 11-game losing skid, the results should have been predictable.

They were.

The Bluejays had no trouble downing the conference cellar-dwellers, 64-34.

But don’t tell Tabor coach Rusty Allen the win was automatic.

“Somebody asked me Saturday afternoon when our next ‘big game’ was and I told them about three hours from now,” Allen said. “A tally in the win column against Saint Mary doesn’t count any more or less than a win does against Sterling.”

Saint Mary seemed intent on guarding the Bluejays man to man-but not too aggressively.

“They play a real conservative defense and they sag a lot,” Allen said. “They left people open a lot for the 3-point shot almost every time.”

Initially, the Bluejays took the bait, firing up 13 3-point attempts in the first half, most of them in the first 12 minutes.

Allen said while the shot was available, it wasn’t what his offense is all about.

“We called timeout midway through the first half and decided we were going to try to get the ball to the basket more often,” he said. “When we did that, that’s when our lead began to swell.”

The effort to pound the ball inside led Tabor to a 31-20 lead at halftime.

Incredibly, the 20-point output proved to be the Spires’s best half.

Combining a stingy Bluejay defense and lackadaisical effort by Saint Mary, Tabor limited the Spires to just 14 points coming on 4-for-33 shooting (12 percent) in the second half. The Spires finished with 10-for-55 shooting (18 percent) for the game, including an 0-for-10 display from the 3-point line.

“You have to give some credit to our defense but also I don’t think it’s very realistic to think you’re going to hold a team to 18 percent for the game if they’re not off a little,” Allen said. “We played pretty good defense though. I didn’t have any complaints.”

Leading the Bluejay charge was junior Erica Hemmert, who recorded a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds.

“Erica plays a really good game,” Allen said. “She got a lot of rebounds and just did a really good job on the offensive end again.”

Tabor’s fast break added to the Spires’ woes.

“We really ran the court well,” Allen said. “We created a lot of problems for them in terms of transition.”

Long-range accuracy created problems, too. Tabor nailed eight of 20 3-point attempts, outscoring the Spires from beyond the arc, 24-0.

With the lead hovering around 20 points with just under 12 minutes to play, Allen went to his bench.

“We put everybody in and those girls did a great job,” Allen said. “They actually increased the lead.”

Hemmert’s 15 points led a balanced Tabor attack. Stacie Herman was the only other Bluejay in double figures with 10 points.

Tabor hit 22 of 60 field goal attempts (37 percent) for the game and 12 of 17 (71 percent) from the foul line.

With the win, Tabor improved to 18-4 overall and 11-1 in KCAC play and remained in sole possession of first place. Saint Mary fell to 0-12 and 4-18.

Friends-Tabor coach Rusty Allen knew the game between his 11th-ranked Bluejays and 18th-ranked Friends University Thursday night in Wichita was for the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference lead.

Both teams entered the contest with identical 9-1 KCAC records.

But Allen couldn’t have known his team would start the game in an 11-0 hole-but it didn’t surprise him either.

“I credit them,” Allen said of Friends’ jack rabbit start. “They made it hard for us to get good looks at the basket and they really attacked us on the offensive end of the court.

“I anticipated something like that would happen.”

It wasn’t until Stacie Herman scored with 14:19 to play in the half that Tabor broke its scoring drought.

But seconds later, Friends’ Jenna Kokojan drilled her second 3-point basket of the opening six minutes and the Falcons looked comfortable with a 14-2 lead.

Kokojan, however, came up empty in her next six attempts.

“We knew her reputation as a deep 3-point threat, but we lost her two times and she made us pay each time,” Allen said. “We challenged our players to stay more aware of her from then on.”

Behind the relentless rebounding from Donya Anderson, an old fashioned 3-point play from Nicole Ellis and an Anderson steal and subsequent lay up, Tabor caught the high-flying Falcons at 16-16 with 8:23 left in the half.

Allen said the comeback wasn’t a thing of beauty.

“I’m not sure we did that much very well in that stretch, but we made a few key shots and we rebounded well,” he said. “Donya grabbed eight rebounds in the first half alone (15 in the game) and we toughened up on defense.”

Partial credit went to the non-starters.

“Our depth helped us,” Allen said. “We’ve got some good players who can come in and get some good things done.”

A pair of Erica Dechant free throws with 14 seconds left in the half sent the Bluejays to the locker room with a 25-24 lead.

The second half proved to be worthy of a conference showdown.

After Stacie Bell canned a pair of free throws with 10:57 to play in the game, Erica Hemmert drained a 3-point shot from the corner and followed that with a steal and layup. Tabor suddenly held a comparatively comfortable 43-35 lead with 9:37 to play.

But Friends responded with a 12-4 run, capped by a pair of Kokojan free throws that tied the game at 47 with 4:23 to play.

But Hemmert sparked the Bluejays down the stretch. The All-KCAC guard missed a 3-point shot from the left side, but grabbed the rebound and stung the Falcons with a 3-pointer from the far wing to put Tabor back on top 50-47.

After a Kokojan miss, Herman streaked the length of the floor for a layup and a 52-47 Bluejay lead with 3:32 to play.

“That was pretty huge,” Allen said. “That grabbed the momentum and with so little time left on the clock, the pressure was on them to either score or be in a panic mode.”

A Herman basket in the final moments gave Tabor a seven-point lead and ultimately a 55-50 win.

Allen said his team’s effort was inspiring.

“I like my team a lot,” he said with a smile. “God has really blessed me with a team that responds to just about any adversity they face, and I’m really pleased with their effort.”

Hemmert led the Bluejays with 14 points-12 in the second half’ and Herman and Dechant each added 12.

Tabor connected on 19 of 55 field-goal attempts (35 percent) including 5 of 17 (29 percent) from beyond the 3-point line, while Friends was 14 of 51 (28 percent) from the field and just 3 of 18 (17 percent) from beyond the arc.

Anderson pulled down a team-high 15 rebounds, but Tabor was outrebounded by the Falcons, 50-42. But Friends committed 20 turnovers that led to 17 Tabor points while the Bluejays committed just 13 turnovers.

With their 12th straight win, Tabor took over sole possession of first place in the conference race with a 10-1 record while moving to 17-4 overall.

The Falcons fell to 9-2, tied with Sterling for second place, and 17-4 overall.

“It’s a big step toward having an opportunity to win the KCAC, but it’s just that right now-an opportunity,” Allen said. “How will we deal with it? So far they’ve dealt with it, but there are no guarantees.”

Coming-Tabor returns home Thursday night to host the McPherson Bulldogs at 6 p.m., then travels to North Newton to play the Bethel Threshers in a game originally scheduled to be played in Hillsboro.

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