ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
For three quarters of Saturday’s game with Kansas Wesleyan, the Tabor College women proved why they’re the nation’s fifth-ranked team, steam-rolling to an 18-point lead.
But at the final horn, Tabor barely escaped with an 81-78 win over a Wesleyan team that would stop at nothing to pull off what would have been the upset of the season.
“I’m not surprised it was a tough game, but we played so poorly in the second half that it wasn’t even a gauge of what the game should have been,” coach Rusty Allen said.
Wesleyan opened the contest looking to exact revenge for an earlier 81-63 loss to Tabor.
A pair of 3-point baskets and a free throw gave the Coyotes a 7-0 lead 33 seconds after tipoff.
The Bluejays spent the first 10 minutes chasing the Coyotes and didn’t take their first lead until Erica Dechant’s 3-point basket with 9:26 left in the half to put Tabor on top 18-16. Her basket ignited an 21-5 run over the next seven minutes that staked Tabor to 36-21 lead.
A Shannon Kroeker 3-pointer gave Tabor its largest lead of the half before the Bluejays settled for a 43-29 lead at intermission.
In the first half, Tabor made 18 of 33 field-goal attempts (54.5 percent) including six of 12 from the 3-point line.
“I was pleased with our play in the first half,” Allen said. “I thought we were on the verge of having another great game.”
Few in attendance expected anything different in the second half as Tabor expanded its lead to 18 points, 60-42, with 10:32 to play.
But in less than two minutes, the Coyotes scored 11 unanswered points to slice that lead to 60-53.
Suddenly the Coyotes, who had been running scared most of the night, had become the aggressor.
But the Bluejays answered like the defending champion, reconstructing a 14-point lead of 70-56 with 4:40 to play on baskets from Jill Hein, Nicole Ellis, Erica Hemmert and Emily Vogts.
Sensing the game slipping away, Wesleyan coach Gordon Reimer called for his women to turn up the heat-and the physical play. The result was a ton of Tabor turnovers. Wesleyan took advantage of the opportunity, cut the lead to 72-66 with 2:40 left.
Tabor would finish the game with 30 turnovers, 18 in the second half.
“The game was sloppy and we made a lot of turnovers we shouldn’t have made,”Allen said. “But sometimes it becomes really difficult to take care of the basketball under the circumstances.
“At times in the second half, we lost our composure.”
Luckily for Tabor, one place they retained their composure was at the charity stripe. The Bluejays converted nine of 10 free throws down the stretch, scoring their last nine points at the line. Stacie Herman made four, Hein and Hemmert two each and Vogts one as Tabor held on for the win.
Hemmert led Tabor with 20 points. Herman added 16 and Hein 11. Tabor hit 27 of 51 from the field (53 percent) and eight of 17 (47 percent) from behind the 3-point line.
Wesleyan was paced by Khristy Santee with 16 points. The Coyotes made only 24 of 70 shots from the field (34 percent) but matched Tabor from behind the 3-point line, going 8-for-17.
Tabor made 19 of 25 free throws; Wesleyan made 22 of 32.
After Tabor held a 21-13 edge in rebounding at halftime, Wesleyan eventually out-battled the taller Bluejays 40-38.
“They became the aggressor and we weren’t nasty enough about it,” Allen said. “We didn’t box out strong and we were too soft on the boards. Quite frankly, that’s more troubling to me than our turnovers.”
With its 20th consecutive win, Tabor wrapped up its second straight outright KCAC title, improving to 16-0 in the conference and 23-3 overall.
Wesleyan fell to 14-11 and 7-9.
“We’re really proud of winning a second straight title and it’s been a fun season,” Allen said. “But we have lots more to get done.”
Friends-Like the Washington Generals taking the court with the Harlem Globetrotters, there was never doubt who would prevail Thursday in Tabor’s game against Friends University.
Tabor’s 70-42 victory ensured a ticket to the national tournament as the Bluejays clinched the conference’s automatic bid as its regular-season champion.
“We played real well right from the get-go,” coach Rusty Allen said, wiping water from his face after being soaked with a celebratory drenching by his team. “I thought we were about as good defensively as I’ve ever seen.”
That’s saying something, considering Tabor has held its opponents to under 35 percent shooting for the season-fifth-best in the nation.
Tabor jumped on top 6-0 and never looked back. It built a 17-5 lead seven minutes into the game.
The lead grew to 29 points at 39-10 with just over a minute left in the half. The Bluejays led 39-13 at intermission. Friends made only five of 19 (26 percent) field-goal attempts in the half.
“We denied the ball so well on the perimeter,” Allen said. “We were able to get good ball pressure without getting beat off the dribble.”
Meanwhile, Tabor made shot after shot in the paint, leading to 55 percent accuracy in the opening half.
“I thought we had them on their heels early in the game and kind of hurt their confidence,” Allen said. “As the game wore on, they got some open looks but they couldn’t put them in the basket.”
Any thoughts that the Falcons would rally were dashed early in the second half as Tabor extended its lead to 34 points, 53-19, with 13:49 to play.
“We pushed the ball well but we made pretty good decisions,” Allen said. “We passed the ball well and we executed well. Early in the second half, it seemed like we really got a lot of fast break opportunities and really got some easy shots.”
Those easy shots swelled the lead to 37 points as Allen played everyone who suited for the game.
“What I really like about a game like this is, if our top seven or eight players will do their job, then we got to play a lot of people, quality minutes,” he said.
Tabor hit 52 percent from the field (27-52) and made 14 of 16 (88 percent) free throws.
Friends shot 25 percent (13-52) from the floor, including a 2-for-15 showing on 3-point attempts.
Emily Vogts led Tabor with 16 points. Anderson added 14 points and nine rebounds and Erica Hemmert 13 points.
Allen said even though his team clinched a spot at the national tourney, its work is not done.
“Seeding at the national tournament is a pretty big deal because we know from experience that a No. 1 or 2 seed is far better than a No. 4 or 5,” he said. “The girls are so excited about their potential, they’ve been coming to practice really ready to get after it.”
Coming- Tabor hits the road Thursday, heading to Leavenworth to battle Saint Mary before returning home for the final game of the regular season with Bethel College on Saturday.