Elite status / Tabor College women reach the final eight in their quest for a national title

The Tabor College bench celebrates after the Bluejays tied their second-round game with Southern Oregon at 12 midway through the first half Friday. After trailing 8-0, Tabor came back to tie the game, forcing Southern Oregon to call timeout. The Bluejays won their first-round game against Marian, then defeated Southern Oregon, 72-65, before falling to Briar Cliff in the quarterfinals. Janae Rempel / Free Press

The Tabor College women met their match in the quarterfinal round of the 2015 NAIA Women?s Basketball National Championship Saturday.

Having advanced to the elite eight for the first time in program history, Tabor?s run ended with a 62-53 loss to 19th-ranked Briar Cliff (Iowa) (26-9), a No. 5 seed in Tabor?s quadrant. Briar Cliff had previously knocked off undefeated Davenport, a No. 1 seed.

The Bluejays, who themselves lean heavily on their defense, faltered offensively against the Chargers? zone, which put a wrench in most everything Tabor tried to do.

?They overload to one side and really try and cut the floor in half,? coach Shawn Reed said. ?(Briar Cliff coach Mike Power) does a good job with that 2-3 zone. They kind of rotate a little bit differently than a lot of zones that you might see.?

The Bluejays missed their first 10 shots, and, as in their previous game, found themselves in an early hole, 8-0. Tabor made just three free throws before Erin Maxwell scored the Bluejays? first basket with 8:48 left in the first half. By that point, Briar Cliff led, 16-5. The Bluejays benefitted from two clutch threes from Taylor Hurd and Mallory Zuercher, but still the deficit danced around 10 points.

Tabor trailed, 24-13, with 3:01 left in the half but burst with a 7-0 run, thanks to a lock-down defensive effort. Hurd made her second trey of the game during that stretch, and Tabor trailed only 24-20 at intermission.

Tena Loewen shoots for two during the second half of Tabor?s quarterfinal game against Briar Cliff Saturday. Loewen scored eight points in Tabor?s 62-53 loss. Over three games, the sophomore forward scored 37 points and pulled down 27 rebounds. Janae Rempel / Free PressThe Bluejays shot just under 29 percent from the field in the first half (6-21), including 33 percent from three (3-9). Tabor committed 15 first-half turnovers.

?I was thrilled to be down four at half because that was not a good first half,? Reed said. ?I really thought we dodged a bullet. But I could even tell when we went in the locker room, we just looked a little tired. (We) invested a lot in those last two games, and I think it just caught up with us a little bit.?

Needing to find an offensive spark, Tabor came out cool to start the second half, allowing the Chargers to regain a double-digit lead. Taylor Janzen scored Tabor?s first point at the charity stripe, and Tena Loewen made Tabor?s first field goal with 12:43 left in the game. At that point, Tabor trailed, 34-23.

Tabor?s defense buckled down, forcing three Charger turnovers and a missed shot. But offensively, Tabor could not capitalize. Zuercher made her second three during that stretch, but Tabor did not score again for more than three minutes.

Briar Cliff built to its largest margin, 45-32. Tonisha Dean scored her first points at the 5:17 mark. Dean and Loewen later scored in succession to trim it to 47-38 with 2:36 remaining. Following a timeout, Tabor added full-court pressure, and the Bluejays drew within 48-40 with 2:11 to play.

But Briar Cliff made its free throws, going 14-of-16 (88 percent) from the line in the final two minutes. Tabor was running out of time.

Dean, who scored 10 of her team-high 14 points in the final 1:20, made a three with 35 seconds left to bring Tabor within 57-49. But Briar Cliff continued to hit charity shots?the Chargers made 32 of 38 for the game? and led, 62-50, with just under five seconds to go. Dean scored the final points of the game and her Tabor career with a buzzer-beating trey that brought it to the final, 62-53, margin.

Taylor Hurd?We just really struggled to score and get anything going, and that makes playing defense harder,? Reed said. ?That?s kind of been our M.O. this year. We struggle to score a little bit but play defense and rebound. We struggled against zone quite a bit, so I have to do a better job and get us prepared.?

Both teams shot 33.3 percent from the field. The Chargers scored more than half of their points from the charity stripe. Jessi Corrick led the charge, scoring most of her 19 points on 15-16 shooting from the line. With the win, Briar Cliff was one of four teams to advance to the semifinals.

The game was the final one for seniors Dean, Janzen, Erin Maxwell and Emily Peterson.

Tabor concludes its successful season with an overall record of 21-13.

?I?m proud of them,? Reed said. ?It?s hard to have perspective when you?re so disappointed. We felt like we didn?t play our best game and that?s a part of that, too. Briar Cliff has a big part of that because they played really well.

?They?re asking a lot of what-ifs, and I just told them they?ve got to have perspective. Think about the season. We won our league for the first time since (2005-06), and this is the first time Tabor?s been in the Elite Eight, but right now it?s hard to hear that.?

Tabor 72, S. Oregon 65

Second Round, Friday

Some may label Tabor?s success on the national stage a Cinderella story, but coach Shawn Reed and the Bluejays know they belong.

?Coming into this we never felt like the underdog,? said sophomore forward Tena Loewen following her double-double performance in Tabor?s second upset of the tournament. ?We were going to come bring it all we got. We rely a lot on our defense, and we brought that today.?

The Bluejays? seven-point win over Southern Oregon, a No. 3 seed, came on the heels of Tabor?s first-round upset just two days prior.

Reed attributed Tabor?s post-season success to a tough non-conference schedule, which included three-point losses to two NAIA Division II qualifiers. Tabor also faced NAIA Division I qualifiers Oklahoma Baptist and Benedictine this season.

?We played a nasty schedule; we always do, and I just believe that this time of year, that?ll make us better,? Reed said. ?When we took that lead and things got a little shaky, these girls have played in tons of close games, and so that doesn?t faze them.?

Tonisha DeanTabor held the Raiders, who tied for 10th in the final poll, to nearly 20 points below their average of 84.1 points per game, once again a testament to defense.

The Raiders? boasted four players 6-foot, 2-inches or taller. Tabor lists no one over 5-11, but the Bluejays rose to the challenge.

After the Raiders built an 8-0 lead, the Bluejays got rolling, tying the game at 12 with baskets by Tena Loewen and Kaleigh Troxell. But when Tabor turned the ball over, the Raiders built a 19-15 lead. Taylor Hurd later closed the gap with a three-pointer, and Loewen gave Tabor its first lead, 23-22, with a three-point play with 3:15 left in the half.

Despite shooting around 27 percent from the field in the first half (9-33), the Bluejays led, 27-25, at intermission, having limited the Raiders to just 31 percent (8-26) and forcing 11 turnovers.

?The first few minutes there we were a little rattled, but then we got back and started playing defense like we?re capable of playing,? Reed said. ?We?ve had teams try and speed up against us. That?s not uncommon. We play a little bit more methodical.?

The Bluejay offense heated up in the second half. After the teams traded scores, Mallory Zuercher made a three to ignite a 9-0 run. Tabor?s defense fueled the charge as the flustered Raiders could not settle into a rhythm. By the time Tonisha Dean scored twice, Tabor led, 40-30.

?We just went out ready,? Dean said of the start to the second half. ?We wanted to start it off right, not get down. We came in, played good defense, got steals, hands on balls.?

Hurd and Loewen later contributed to an 8-2 run that gave Tabor its largest lead, 48-36, with 11:23 to play.

But the Raiders would not go quietly. Having gained ground, 54-47, the Raiders began pressing and switched to a zone. That contributed to a 13-1 rally that left Tabor trailing, 56-55, with 6:00 left.

Tabor kicked it into high gear. Hurd drained her second three, then Dean scored to put Tabor in front by four.

Still, the Raiders hung around, drawing within 65-63, and later, 68-65, with 49 seconds left.

After a Bluejay miss, Loewen willed her way in to grab the rebound. Her put-back gave Tabor breathing room, 70-65, with 20 seconds to go.

Two Southern Oregon shots missed, and coach Lynn Kennedy was called for a technical foul. Hurd solidified the victory by sinking both charity shots.

?We feel like we?ll play defense for 40 minutes and that we can guard just about anything,? Reed said. ?I think we proved that today.?

Tabor shot nearly 40 percent from the field (27-68), making 18 of 35 attempts (51 percent) in the second half. Hurd led all scorers with 21 points. Loewen had 17 points and 10 rebounds. Dean added 14 points.

The win gave Tabor its first berth in the eight-team quarterfinal round.

Southern Oregon shot just under 37 percent (24-65). Three Raiders scored in double figures, led by Carly Meister with 16, Kristen Schoenherr 15 and Alexi Smith 12. With the loss, the Raiders concluded the season with an overall record of 27-5.

Tabor 53, Marian 50

First Round, Wednesday

Tabor kicked off its second-consecutive tournament appearance by upsetting Marian (Ind.), a No. 2 seed in the Bluejays? quadrant.

The seventh-ranked team in the final Top 25 poll, Marian led the NAIA Division II in field goal percentage (47.7 percent), but Tabor limited the Knights to just 34.7 percent (17-49).

Coach Shawn Reed praised his team?s effort against a team he described as ?really good offensively?.

?We controlled the game defensively and controlled the glass and that helped us,? he said.

Kaylee Walters, the game?s leading scorer, made two of her three three-pointers in the first two minutes, and Tabor trailed early, 6-4.

But with Tabor?s defense fueling the fire, the Bluejays burst with a 13-1 run to enjoy a 17-7 lead. Tabor forced five Knight turnovers in a five-minute stretch. On the other end of the court, Mallory Zuercher led the charge with five points.

Erin Maxwell looks to pass the ball during Tabor?s first-round game against Marian. The Bluejays won, 53-50. Janae Rempel / Free Press

Tabor then suffered through a scoring drought, making just one free throw in a six-and-a-half minute span. The Knights struggled too, scoring five points to draw within 18-12 with 6:32 left in the half. Tonisha Dean broke the ice with a basket at 5:40, but the Knights outscored Tabor 13-4 to take the lead, 25-24, with 1:25 to play. Tena Loewen pushed Tabor back in front to end the half, 26-25.

The teams locked heads at 27, then Kaleigh Troxell hit back-to-back threes. Dean and Taylor Hurd made consecutive threes, and when Hurd followed with a two-pointer, Tabor?s lead was back in double figures. The Bluejays built to their largest lead, 45-33, with 10:10 left in the game. But over the next nine minutes, Tabor scored just two baskets?both by Loewen?and the Knights took advantage, tying the game at 49 with 46 seconds to go.

Dean scored, then the Bluejays were called for a foul. The Knights made just one of two free throws, leaving Tabor clinging to a 51-50 lead with 12 seconds left. Marian sent Dean to the line with 9.6 left, where she hit two free throws to increase Tabor?s lead to the final, 53-50, margin. After Marian missed a shot and Tabor missed a one-and-one, Marian?s half-court lob at the buzzer missed its mark.

?We actually were better (offensively) in the first half, which is rare for us, but we shot well from the three-point line in the second,? Reed said. ?We could?ve won that game by more, but we made 5 of 14 free throws. We actually shot better from the three-point line than the free-throw line.?

Tabor shot 38.9 percent from the field (21-54), including nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc (6-14). Dean led Tabor with 15 points. Loewen added 12.

Walters scored 16 for Marian. Jessica Almeida added 10. With the loss, the Knights concluded the season with an overall record of 28-6.

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