ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
The ninth-ranked Tabor College Bluejays looked to be on their way to a coach’s dream Saturday against Bethany: a complete 40-minute game.
A late second-half swoon shattered that goal, but it didn’t keep the Bluejays from defeating the Swedes, 74-66, Saturday night in Lindsborg. It was Tabor coach Rusty Allen’s first win at Bethany in his four-year tenure.
“We played really well for about 30 minutes and we played really poor for about 10 minutes,” Allen said. “Part of that is due to (Bethany) because they showed a lot of heart and they played real aggressive. They created some problems for us.”
But those problems weren’t enough to offset an impressive display of basketball in that 30-minute span.
Behind the aggressive play of Erica Hemmert and Donya Anderson, the Bluejays transformed a 13-8 lead with 13:38 to play in the first half into a 31-13 lead just six minutes later.
Although the Swedes cut the margin to as little as eight points later in the half, Tabor took a 38-27 lead into the halftime locker room.
Hemmert scored 16 first-half points and Anderson added 11 as Tabor hit 17 of 30 field-goal attempts (57 percent).
“We executed really well in the first half,” Allen said. “We got great looks at the basket and I thought we really established control of the game early on.”
The Bluejays started the second half with a 12-0 run that staked them to a 50-27 advantage.
The lead swelled to as many as 25 points, 54-29, with 11:56 remaining, before the Swedes changed tactics and made a run.
Employing an aggressive full-court press, Bethany flustered the Bluejays and whittled the lead to seven points, 67-60, with 3:03 to play.
Allen said the press caused problems, but not all of them were attributable to the Swedes.
“The first few possessions they pressed, we broke it easily but we missed two or three 15-foot jump shots,” he said. “That, combined with me cautioning the team during a timeout that we needed to attack the basket, caused us to think a little differently.
“We didn’t look up the court and we started tensing up so we didn’t find each other as easily,” he added. “I think panic kind of set in.”
The result was 12 second-half Bluejay turnovers and 21 in the game.
“We probably had six to nine turnovers that were completely ridiculous,” Allen said. “A few of those were caused by the really physical nature of the game, but you have to expect that and you can’t make excuses.”
Leading by just seven points, the Bluejays took care of business at the free-throw line down the stretch, nailing seven of eight attempts, to preserve the important conference victory.
“The way we finished this game could be a blessing because now we know what we need to do to finish down the stretch,” Allen said. “Everything you point at statistically in the last eight minutes is a result of us losing our composure down the stretch.”
Hemmert led the Bluejays with 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting. Stacie Herman scored 19 and Anderson had 11 points and seven rebounds.
Tabor connected on 29 of 54 field-goal attempts (54 percent) while Bethany made only 23 of 67 attempts (34 percent) including 13 of 32 (41 percent) from beyond the 3-point arc.
In winning their 17th straight game, Tabor improved to 22-4 overall and 15-1 in the KCAC, and maintained its one-game lead over Sterling College with just two games to play.
“In the big picture, I’m pretty pleased,” Allen said of Saturday’s win. “We played 30 minutes really well and got our first win in Lindsborg in my four years at Tabor and that’s no small feat.”
Kansas Wesleyan-Coyote first-year coach Gordon Reimer must have felt like he was hunting grizzly bear with a pocket knife Thursday night in Salina.
Reimer took on ninth-ranked Tabor with just eight players suited up. In the end it proved costly, as the Bluejays’ depth overpowered the Coyotes, 77-53.
“We did what we came to do, and that’s win,” Tabor coach Rusty Allen said. “I’m really glad we got a lot of people in the game and they did more than just play at the end.”
It was evident from the beginning that Wesleyan was not only out-numbered but also less talented than Tabor.
It wasn’t until Victoria Gillett hit a pair of free throws with 11:45 to play that Wesleyan got on the scoreboard.
It took even longer for them to score a field goal.
Kristen Crittenden broke that drought with 9:39 to play, but by that time, Tabor was out to a 13-4 lead. Tabor finished the opening 20 minutes with a 17-5 run to lead 36-14 by halftime.
But Tabor seemed to lose some of its luster in the halftime locker room and Wesleyan showed enough pride to take advantage.
An 11-4 run by the Coyotes to open the half prompted Allen to put a fresh five on the court.
“We came out lethargic, very flat and we weren’t doing the little things well,” he said. “We just lost our edge in the second half, so we went to our bench to get some of that edge back and a little more of a fresh perspective on the game.”
Wesleyan never got closer to the Bluejays, who led by as many as 26 on the way to the 24-point win.
Contributing to the win were 23 Coyote turnovers that the Bluejays converted into 35 points, many on uncontested layups.
“That was a huge advantage and that was our game plan-to try to capitalize on what we thought was a big advantage,” Allen said. “We wanted to pressure the ball and keep fresher bodies in the game because we knew they didn’t have near the depth we have.”
Erica Hemmert led Tabor with 18 points; Stacie Herman added 15.
Although Tabor hit only 44 percent against the Wesleyan zone defense, the Bluejays did hit nine of 19 3-point attempts (47 percent).
“We haven’t seen a lot of zone and that has a tendency to slow you down, so adjusting to that is a little bit of a challenge when you don’t experience it very often,” Allen said. “I thought that was a good strategy on their part-probably a necessity.”
In all, 11 Bluejays scored.
“People like Sarah Lyons and Danielle Ebert just work hard in practice and it’s nice to see that pay off for them,” Allen said. “It’s nice to reward everyone with playing time.”
The Bluejays also converted 16 of 20 free throws (80 percent).
Wesleyan hit only 31 percent from the field (18-58) including 5 of 14 (36 percent) from beyond the 3-point arc.
Allen said his team didn’t play its best game of the year, but hoped they learned some lessons in the process.
“It’s important not to take winning for granted,” he said. “I told our team not to dwell on the past. We did some good things in this game and there are some things we need to improve upon and we’ll talk about them in practice. But the goal is still in front of us.”
Coming-Tabor will entertain Sterling on Thursday in Hillsboro. A Bluejay win would give Tabor the outright KCAC title and an automatic berth in the national tournament next month in Iowa. A loss drops Tabor into a tie with the Warriors with one game remaining.
“We can’t let Sterling’s transition game get easy baskets, we can’t put them on the free throw line and we have to take care of the basketball and not force bad situations,” Allen said. “We have to burn their press.”
Game time is set for 6 p.m.