ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Usually, a conference victory in December isn’t critical to a conference championship in February.
But if the Tabor College women go on to capture their second straight Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference title as many expect, their 70-64 win over Sterling on Saturday may have been the springboard.
“Sterling is so well coached and has such tradition that winning here is a great accomplishment,” Tabor coach Rusty Allen said. “(Sterling) is a young team, so by February, they’ll be even better.”
The Warriors scored the first bucket of the game less than two minutes into the game, but no one scored again until Tabor’s Emily Vogts tied the score at the 16:55 mark.
Sterling coach Lonnie Kruse’s team would never lead the rest of the night.
Up 11-9 with 12:17 to play in the half, Tabor hit the Warriors with a 10-0 run that included 3-point baskets by Jill Hein and Erica Dechant to lead by 12 at the 7:25 mark.
“We were able to get a nice lead because defensively we were playing very well,” Allen said. “When we were fresh, I thought it really showed that we were well prepared for what they were trying to do. But we also played hard, we played smart and we were fortunate to get a few fast breaks.”
But Kruse hasn’t won more than 500 games at Sterling by throwing in the towel when his team falls behind.
The Warriors went to their inside game to whittle Tabor’s lead to 30-26 by halftime and get the Bluejays’ interior people in foul trouble in the process.
The second half was typical Tabor-Sterling basketball. Tabor’s lead fluctuated from two to nine points, but the Warriors answered each time Tabor tried to pull away.
Tabor led 43-39 when Vogts was whistled for her fourth foul. Barely three minutes later, Donya Anderson was assessed her fourth personal, too.
“It made me nervous,” Allen said. “I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen, but I talked to them on the bench and told them if ever there was a time I needed them to play out a game with four fouls, this was it.”
Fortunately for Tabor, Erica Hemmert was still on the court and the honorable-mention All-American took matters into her own hands.
After being held scoreless during the first half, Hemmert scored all nine of her points over a seven-minute stretch to keep Sterling at bay and buy precious time while Vogts and Anderson cooled their heels on the bench.
When he reinserted Vogts and Anderson into the game, Allen switched to a zone defense to not only befuddle Sterling, but buy time for his interior duo.
“We had been preparing our zone hard and wanted to use it at the right time-and obviously Sterling, being one of the toughest teams in the league, we felt it was the right time,” Allen said.
“Although we probably played zone a bit more (because of fouls) in the second half, we really did have a lot of success with it.”
When Hemmert drained a 3-point basket to put Tabor on top 60-50 with 5:20 to play, those dressed in Tabor blue felt confident victory was ahead.
But Sterling battled back again, this time on the strength of three 3-point baskets-their only three of the game-to slice the lead to 62-61 with 2:00 minutes remaining.
But Vogts stepped up with consecutive baskets on assists from Anderson and Stacie Herman to expand the lead to 66-61 with only 44 seconds left.
“Our team really has a lot of confidence in each other and they seem to be able to find who has the best matchup,” Allen said of Vogts’s buckets. “She scored on a couple of great looks.”
When the final horn sounded a 70-64 win, both Anderson and Vogts were still on the court.
Anderson led Tabor with 19 points while Vogts added 17 points and a team-high 10 rebounds.
“The fact they were both on able to finish the game was very important,” Allen said.
Herman added 14 points and nine assists.
Taylor White led Sterling with 17 points.
The Bluejays hit 29 of 66 (43.9 percent) shots from the field while Sterling made 23 of 64 (35.9 percent). Tabor connected on four of nine 3-point attempts (44.4 percent) while Sterling made three of 20 (15 percent).
Sterling committed 18 turnovers to Tabor’s 16 and out-rebounded Tabor, 43-42.
With the win, Tabor improved to 2-0 in KCAC play and 7-3 overall.
Bethany- Tabor got off to a slow start during the conference opener Thursday night against the Bethany Swedes. But by the end of the game, the Bluejays had earned an easy 69-44 win on their home court.
Early, the game looked more like an preseason practice as both teams struggled to gain any semblance of offense.
A field goal by Emily Vogts 30 seconds into the game put Tabor on top 2-0 and 25 seconds later, Erica Hemmert added a free throw to stake Tabor to a 3-0 lead.
Almost four minutes later, sharp-shooter Erica Dechant drained a 3-point shot from the top of the key to put Tabor on top 6-0 with 14:08 left in the half.
It wasn’t until the 13:37 mark that Bethany finally broke its scoring ice on a LaShelle Parker basket, but the Swedes only trailed by four points.
Tabor coach Rusty Allen said the slow start was a combination of Bethany’s defense and lack of execution by his own club.
“We missed a lot of shots early and didn’t execute very well,” Allen said. “Bethany was really playing hard and I think had us back on our heels a little bit, but we weren’t sharp.
“We settled for poor shots for awhile and turned the ball over way too many times.”
That trend continued well into the half as the Bluejays clung to a 12-11 lead at the 5:55 mark.
Seconds later, Dechant struck again, this time with a 3-point shot to push the Tabor advantage to four points.
Allen said the Salina senior is regaining confidence in her ability to hit big shots.
“Erica was due,” he said. “She’s a really good shooter, but she hasn’t been able to get her shot to fall. Against Concordia last Saturday, she hit one and I told her that was probably all it took to get her going.”
Even though the Swedes hung tough the final six minutes of the half, Tabor entered the locker room with a 26-19 led.
The Bluejays dominated the second half. An early 8-1 scoring run put the Jays on top 34-20. The only thing left to be decided was the final score.
“We executed a lot better on offense in the second half,” Allen said. “We didn’t settle for jump shots as quickly and we tried to get the ball to the basket more.”
That aggressive play also resulted in trips to the free-throw line. After converting only one of two free throws in the first half, Tabor drained 10 of 16 chances in the second half. Emily Vogts canned seven of eight for the game on her way to a team-high 13 points.
A pair of Shannon Kroeker field goals gave Tabor its largest lead of the contest at 29 points, 67-38, before the Bluejays settled for the 69-44 win.
Allen said defense, as always, keyed the Bluejay win.
“Jill (Hein) and Erica Hemmert played really good defense,” Allen said. “(Angie) Hinkin is a good player, but she didn’t score tonight.”
Besides Vogts production, Stacie Herman, with 10 points, was the only other Bluejay to score in double figures.
Tammara Harris led the Swedes with 13.
Tabor hit 35.5 percent of its shots in the first half, but heated up to 53.6 percent (15 of 28) in the second half to finish the game at 44.1 percent.
The Jays amassed 20 assists along the way.
“We passed the ball well,” Allen said. “I was pleased, especially in the second half-except for a couple of sloppy turnovers against their press.”
The Bluejays held Bethany to 20.3 percent (13-64) shooting from the field for the game.
Tabor also won the rebounding battle, 51-40. Donya Anderson who hauled in 14.
“It’s kind of phenomenal when you think about someone getting double figures in rebounding the way you think about someone scoring in double figures,” Allen said. “But that’s where Donya is at.
“She has a great sense of where to get the basketball and she’s strong enough that if she gets her hands on a rebound, it’s hers.”
With the win, Tabor improved to 6-3 overall and 1-0 in the KCAC.
“This was a good win for us to start the conference season and win this soundly,” Allen said. “I think it’s something we can build off.”
Coming-Tabor travels to Winfield on Thursday to battle Southwestern before hosting McPherson Saturday night in their final games before Christmas.