ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
If defense indeed wins championships, Southwestern coach Dave Denly probably wishes he was an engraver so he could etch sixth-ranked Tabor College on the KCAC regular-season trophy.
Denly’s Moundbuilders were completely throttled in the second half of Saturday’s 62-41 Bluejay win.
“We did play good defense in the second half,” Tabor coach Rusty Allen said. “Is it fair or not (to play with such intensity)? It’s fair to play hard, play smart and position ourselves well.”
The Bluejays allowed Southwestern only 14 second-half points while limiting them to five of 25 field goals attempts (20 percent) in the second half and 24.5 percent (12-49) for the contest.
“Coach Denly does a nice job of organizing his team, but our players really stepped up to the challenge,” Allen said. “We caused them to do things they’re not used to doing.”
It took a half before Tabor’s depth and superior ability began to produce a comfortable lead.
The game was tied eight times in the opening 20 minutes and featured four lead changes.
Although the Bluejays held Southwestern to 7-for-24 shooting in the first half, four of those baskets came from behind the 3-point line, forcing the Bluejays to adapt their tactics.
“We fought through their screens harder,” Allen said. “But when we sensed we weren’t getting through those screens, we switched better as well.”
Still, neither team gained much of a cushion. The largest lead of the first half by either team was four points.
Signaling what was to come, the game was tied at 27 with 2:28 to play in the half, but Tabor scored the final four points to lead 31-27 at halftime.
The second half belonged to the Bluejays. Back to back 3-point bombs from Stacie Herman and Erica Hemmert vaulted Tabor to a 41-33 lead at the 14:59 mark.
Then Tabor’s interior offense took over as Emily Vogts, Katie Fast and Nicole Ellis went to work in the paint. Vogts finished with a game-high 14 points and Ellis eight. Fast scored only four points, but caused fits on both ends of the court with her physical presence.
“I thought Katie played exceptionally well tonight,” Allen said. “I just can’t say enough about how pleased I am with her effort.
“Emily played with a lot of confidence. She really needed this game and I think she had a lot of fun tonight.”
Adding to Southwestern’s misery was Jill Hein, who drilled consecutive 3-point baskets.
But it was on the defensive end that Tabor won this game. After the Moundbuilders scored on a Jennifer Chenier hoop with 11:25 to play, they managed only one more field goal over the next eight minutes.
By then the outcome was determined as Tabor owned a 58-38 lead at the 3:05 mark on the way to its 16th straight victory.
Tabor hit an efficient 49 percent for the game (24-49) including six of 11 (55 percent) from behind the 3-point line.
The Bluejays also converted eight of nine free throws in their third win over their three nearest competitors (also Bethany and Sterling) in the KCAC race in consecutive games.
“It was a tough run and we knew it would be tough,” Allen said of the past three matchups. “But maybe the most encouraging aspect of this is that we finished it with our best effort of the three games.”
Erica Hemmert added 10 points to Tabor’s production while Ileana Perez led the Builders with 13.
With the win, Tabor is 19-3 overall and 12-0 in conference play while Southwestern fell to 12-10 and 7-5.
Sterling-Rocky Balboa would have been proud of the Tabor College women Thursday night.
The Bluejays were knocked to the canvass again and again by Sterling in the first half, only to bounce back in the final 20 minutes for a dramatic 61-58 win over the Warriors, who entered the game as Tabor’s closest foe in the KCAC title race.
“This was a pretty pivotal game, it really was,” Allen said. “Sterling is really good and they have a lot of weapons.”
But what Sterling no longer has is Tabor’s number.
That’s because the Bluejays shattered the Warriors’ image of unbeatable last season with a pair of wins.
Early in this game, it wasn’t apparent if the best team was wearing the home whites.
After Tabor took an 8-5 lead on a Jill Hein jumper with 14:12 left in the half, the Bluejays endured a drought that rivals that felt in Kansas this winter. Seven minutes and 14 seconds later, Donya Anderson hit one of two free throws to stop a 14-0 Sterling scoring run that gave the Warriors a 19-8 lead.
Although Tabor would cut the deficit to six in the first half, the horn signalled a 28-16 halftime lead for Sterling.
In the first 20 minutes of play, Tabor managed only three field goals in 15 attempts.
“At halftime, it occurred to me it was just that we couldn’t put the ball in the basket,” Allen said. “We may have had a few too many turnovers (10 in the half) but nobody had any real statistical advantage.”
But good coaches make good adjustments.
“We figured out it had a lot to do with how we were playing, because we weren’t getting open looks,” Allen said. “They were all contested shots, so we talked about exploding, moving the ball and trying to find some space.
“Plus, we had our post players turn and look who the double team was coming from and hit the open man.”
Tabor responded with a 16-3 run over the first six minutes of the second half, capped by a pair of Stacie Herman free throws, to take a 32-21 lead.
From then on, teams traded punches-and the lead-with a flurry. In fact, the second half produced four ties and 13 lead changes before it ended.
Each team seemed to grab momentum for a time, but neither really succeeded.
With Sterling on top 46-43, Tabor’s Erica Dechant drained a long 3-point shot from the right wing to tie the score.
After Donya Anderson added a layup off a Herman assist, Dechant responded with a steal and layup to put the Bluejays on top 50-46 with 6:19 to play.
“Wowsa!” Allen said of his Salina senior. “We couldn’t have asked for any more than Erica Dechant gave us. We went with her at the right time and it worked.”
But Sterling answered with a 10-2 run to construct a 56-52 lead with 2:35 to play. Sterling still led, 58-54, with1:29 remaining.
But Tabor played with the heart of a defending KCAC champion. Although the Bluejays didn’t hit a field goal in the final five plus minutes, they used an aggressive offense to get to the free-throw stripe.
Four free throws from Hein, a pair from Anderson and a single toss from Erica Hemmert gave Tabor a 61-58 lead with 27 seconds remaining.
Even so, the game came down to Anderson blocking a K.C. Bassett 3-point attempt as the game clock expired to preserve the win.
“I guess what I’m most proud of was we got a four-point lead, then trailed by four, but we made defensive plays to get the game back,” Allen said. “That’s two games in a row we’ve done that, and that’s not easy to do against good teams.”
Hein led Tabor with 20 points on 5-for-5 shooting from the floor and 10-for-12 from the free-throw line. Herman added 11 points while Anderson and Hemmert each scored 10.
Hillary Stucky led Sterling with 15.
Tabor made 29 of 37 free throws (78 percent) while the Warriors made 16 of 21 (76 percent).
“Even if we don’t shoot that well, we’ll still have a chance to win because we’re getting our opponent into foul trouble,” Allen said. “We’re making a parade to the free-throw line.”
The Bluejays hit 55 percent from the field in the second half (12-22) to finish the game at 41 percent (15-37) while Sterling made 19 of 50 (38 percent).
Coming-Tabor hits the road this week with trips to McPherson and Ottawa. They play the Bulldogs at 6 p.m. and the Braves at 5 p.m.