ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
The Tabor College women earned an opportunity to dethrone the defending national champions in the second round of the NAIA Division II in Sioux City, Iowa, but the Bluejays knew they’d have to overcome not only a 31-3 Morningside College team, but about 4,500 of their hometown fans as well.
In the end, it proved to be too much for the Bluejays to overcome, as the Sioux City school ended Tabor’s tournament run, 68-57.
“All week we told the girls about the stuff about ‘never having been there before’ and playing the home team,” coach Rusty Allen said. “But that boils down to whether you allow yourself to be distracted.
“The baskets are still 10 feet high, you still have three referees and it’s still 5-on-5.”
Initially it looked bleak for the Bluejays as Morningside, who averages almost 10 3-pointers per game, drained its first two attempts less than a minute into the contest for a quick 6-0 lead.
Undeterred, Tabor battled back to cut the margin to 8-7 with 16:02 left in the first half.
“Morningside is a great team, but I felt like we didn’t allow their quick start to distract us,” Allen said. “We fought back and kept our composure.”
The Mustangs quickly rebuilt a 16-9 lead, but Tabor answered with an 8-1 run to knot the score at 17 at the 9:57 mark.
Forty seconds later, Erica Dechant nailed a shot from long range and Tabor led, 20-17.
That basket seemed to awaken the sleeping giant as Morningside ripped off a 15-2 run for a 10-point lead, 32-22, with just over six minutes left in the half.
The situation turned worse when Tabor’s leading scorer, Erica Hemmert, picked up a pair of fouls just 12 seconds apart, giving her three in the half with 5:00 remaining.
Back-to-back baskets from Katie Fast and Stacie Herman sliced the lead to six, but Tabor trailed at the break, 39-30.
Leading Morningside was Megan Cloud, the Great Plains Athletic Conference Player-of-the-Year and the 2004 national tournament MVP, with 13 points. She was averaging 19.1 points for the season.
Tabor made only 11 of 30 field-goal attempts in the half, but stayed within range by draining seven of 10 free throws.
Hemmert was fouled to begin the second half, and converted one of two free throws. But the WaKeeney junior committed her fourth foul just 1:20 into the half, relegating her to the bench.
Trailing 42-33, Allen rolled the dice and inserted Hemmert back into the Bluejay lineup with 15:41 to play. The gamble backfired when Hemmert picked up her fifth foul with 14:48 to play.
“That was a real unfortunate key for us because Erica gives us so much on both ends of the court,” Allen said.
Tabor struggled over the next two minutes as Morningside built its largest lead of the game, 49-33, at the 12:51 mark.
But the Bluejays rallied around the inside play of Jill Hein and Nicole Ellis and the defensive contributions of two seldom-used players, freshmen Danielle Ebert and Sarah Lyons, to stun the partisan crowd with a 12-0 run. With 10:09 to play, Tabor was within four, 49-45.
Allen said a team devotional earlier in the week from a book by UCLA’s legendary coach John Wooden set the stage for their contribution.
“Coach Wooden talked about some kids who showed they were ready to play, but hadn’t got to much,” he said. “I shared that with the team and told them, ‘You just never know, you need to be ready,’ and Danielle and Sarah were ready.
“They broke the press, defended people and got steals and they were close to scoring about 10 points, but they couldn’t quite find their rhythm.”
Offensively, the burden shifted to Hein and Ellis, who combined for 10 points during the run.
“Jill and Nicole both rallied (when Hemmert fouled out) and kind of took over,” Allen said. “Morningside plays a stretch zone and post players have a great opportunity to look and explode.”
Tired but not defeated, Tabor trailed by only five, 58-53 with 4:10 to play. But down the stretch, the Mustangs had too much Cloud and Brittany Carper, the 2004 national player-of-the-year, as Morningside nailed down the 11-point win.
Freshman Stacie Herman, who logged 37 minutes of playing time, led Tabor with 12 points. Donya Anderson added 11 points and 14 rebounds and Hein scored 10 points.
Cloud finished with 28 points while Carper added 11 points and 13 rebounds for the Mustangs.
Tabor shot only 33 percent from the floor (19-58) while Morningside was only slightly better at 38 percent (23-61). Their 68 points were 15 below their season average (83).
Allen said although the locker room was somber after the loss, Bluejay pride was still evident.
“It really isn’t often you go into the locker room after a loss and say you feel like we executed our game plan, played our best game and got beat,” he said. “When that happens, I’ve told them all year long to be proud of themselves.
“We lost six times all year and this was the only time I could go in the locker room and say that.”
Reflecting on a season that produced a 25-6 record, a KCAC regular-season championship and the school’s first win in a national tournament, Allen said he was honored to be Tabor’s coach.
“It’s been a great season,” he said. “You’re never satisfied with a loss, but you can be content with what you’ve done.
“We’ve had a lot of blessings and I just want to say that I think God has honored a lot of things we try to do (at Tabor College) and I’m thankful for that.”
Allen said the future is bright for Bluejay women’s basketball, with no seniors on this year’s roster, although Erin Raber will graduate a year early.
“Erin got very limited minutes but was right on the edge of playing time,” Allen said. “She would have played for a lot of teams but she had complete humility and she was a great practice player.
“With our returning players, and Katie Tedder back from surgery and hopefully a great recruiting class, I’m excited about the possibilities of our team next season.”
First round vs. Daemen
It was no surprise Tabor College came out tight in its opening game of the NAIA Division II national tournament on Wednesday morning.
The fact the Bluejays overcame their jitters to defeat Daemen College of Amherst, N.Y., 59-57, wasn’t a surprise either.
All year long, coach Rusty Allen’s band of Bluejays has shown resilience and courage on the way to a 24-5 record, a regular-season conference championship and a berth at the prestigious tournament.
But whether the women were nervous or just groggy from the 8:30 a.m. start, it took awhile to get into the flow.
“The atmosphere caused us a little hesitation, but we settled it,” Allen said of playing in the 10,000-seat Tyson Events Center. “I do think we had some jitters initially.”
After Donya Anderson hit a pair of free throws to put Tabor on top 2-0, and a Jill Hein field goal gave the Bluejays a 4-2 advantage moments later, the Wildcats took the lead and held it for much of the first half.
A short jumper by Alison LaPoint swelled Daemen’s lead to seven points, 17-10. The Wildcats still led by seven, 21-14, with just over six minutes left in the opening half.
Key to Daemen’s lead was Tabor’s frigid shooting and its shoddy ball handling, which produced 15 turnovers.
“They weren’t a team that applied that much pressure, so we shouldn’t have had nearly that many turnovers,” Allen said.
As has been the case all year, though, Tabor’s offense got a boost from its nationally ranked defense. Katie Fast and Anderson came up with back-to-back steals that the Bluejays converted into a pair of baskets to cut the lead to 21-20.
Daemen answered with a bucket and a three-point lead, but a 2-pointer by Anderson and a 3-pointer by Hein put Tabor on top, 25-23.
Daemen’s leading scorer, Germany Jackson, was whistled for going over Erica Hemmert’s back, then added a technical foul. Hemmert drained three of the four free throws that resulted and Tabor led, 29-25.
A late free throw by Hein gave the Bluejays a 30-25 halftime lead.
Daemen cut the lead to 34-33 early in the second half, but Tabor never relinquished it. The Bluejays led by as many as seven a couple of times, the final time on a 3-pointer by Erica Dechant with 6:09 to play.
But Daemen stormed back.
When Jackson scored with 1:58 to play, the Wildcats had tied the game at 57, leaving the small but boisterous Tabor faithful on the edge of their seats.
“I thought Daemen’s comeback was based on some lackadaisical defensive play on our part,” Allen said. “I don’t know if we lacked energy or focus, but for awhile we looked like we were wearing out.”
A Tabor turnover with 1:25 to play gave the Wildcats possession, but they couldn’t cash it in.
Then, with 17 seconds left, Nicole Ellis was fouled and calmly sank both free throws to put Tabor on top, 59-57.
“I believed Nicole would make them,” Allen said. “She doesn’t get to the line much but she’s been a great free-throw shooter in her two years at Tabor.”
Daemen inbounded the ball and hustled downcourt, but a shot by Joanna Daugenti was off the mark and the rebound deflected off Daemen and out of bounds with less than a second left.
Tabor had earned its first victory ever in a national tournament.
Hein led Tabor with 16 points and Hemmert scored 13. Tabor made only 35 percent (21-60) of its shots from the floor, while Daemen made 44 percent (27-61).
Tabor had a 40-36 edge in rebounds with Anderson pulling down 10 and Hein eight.
“Donya and Jill did a great job on offensive rebounds,” Allen said. “They’re the two we have to have rebound on our offensive end, and they came through for us today.”
Tabor finished with 21 turnovers, but only five in the second half. Daemen committed 26 turnovers.
“We made much better decisions with the ball in the second half,” Allen said.
The Bluejays had aNd advantage at the free-throw line, making 15 of 18 (83 percent) compared to just two of five for the Wildcats.
Daemen finished its season at 28-5 while the Bluejays improved to 25-4.
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL