Above image courtesy of ascsports.org
ALPINE, Texas- The victory celebration at midcourt said it all. The UMHB women’s basketball team had done something considered to be impossible, having taken down both the ASC east and west division champions in the same tournament, and capturing its second straight conference tournament title.
On Monday night, the Cru played at the level head coach Mark Morefield had been looking for during the regular season, clicking at the right time to defeat a previously No. 2 ranked, 25-0 East Texas Baptist squad by a score of 75-72.
“There was never any doubt going into the tournament that we could compete and beat Hardin-Simmons, there was never any doubt that we could beat ETBU,” said Morefield postgame. “That four-game losing streak during that period of time [towards the end of the season] was a growing time. We had to grow and go through the fires to get where we’re at now.”
It seems fitting that the place where the Cru won it all was the very place the team was when the NCAA announced the national tournament had been called off in early February. An automatic berth to the “Big Dance” may not have been on the line, but watching the action play out in the Gallego Center, there was no difference in the high level of play.
“It was just another hurdle when that stuff came out,” said Morefield in reference to the NCAA Tournament cancellation. “We had to get over that hurdle, mentally wrap our minds around it and it took time.”
The contest came down to the wire in the fourth quarter, as ETBU’s Haley Fieseler drained two free throws to cut the UMHB lead to 73-71 with just 37 seconds remaining. The momentum briefly shifted in the direction of the Tigers, as Bethany McLeod’s inbounds pass was stolen by ETBU’s Kenidi White. The Tiger bench leapt from its seats as ETBU head coach Blake Arbogast quickly called a timeout, hoping to set up a game-tying, or potential go-ahead shot. But during that brief timeout, UMHB was preparing for a defensive stop in what may have been the biggest possession of the game.
“We talked about how we had to lock up defensively, we had to guard without fouling,” said Morefield. “Guard and make them shoot over our length. That was our message to them going into that possession where we got the stop. It all started with the defense.”
The Cru forced ETBU guard Mallory Stephens to miss on a midrange jumper, as the ball fell into the hands of UMHB guard A’Lexiss Benton, who got it to guard Brooke Elliott before an intentional foul was called on the Tigers.
“We executed [the defensive stop] beautifully, used our length, did what we were supposed to do and came down and were able to seal the game,” said Morefield.
With just 15.9 seconds left, Elliott made the final two shots of the season for UMHB, both coming from the free-throw line, to extend the advantage to 75-71. Though it seemed like enough to seal the win, the contest was far from over, as Elliott fouled ETBU guard Kaia Williams on an attempted putback. Williams made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second as the Tigers swarmed for the offensive rebound. The ball bounced between hands as the final seconds ticked away, and UMHB finished its season with a statement win.
“You can’t write it any better,” said Morefield of Elliott’s clutch free throws. “Here’s a senior, doesn’t know if she’s going to come back, could be her final time and what a better way to write than for her to seal the game. In her four years here, we’ve been to the conference championship four times, and we’ve won two of them. You can’t write it any better.”
The Cru held the lead for all but 1:57 of the game and scored 12 seconds into the game on a jumper from post Taylor Kollmorgen, playing the final game of her collegiate career. The Cru shot 42 percent from the field in the opening quarter and led 14-11 at the first intermission, having only trailed once as ETBU took a 4-2 lead.
The offensive accuracy continued in the second quarter, highlighted by a 7-0 run to open the period that put UMHB in front 21-11.
“The biggest thing is, we were making shots,” said Morefield. “There’s a difference between shooting 47 percent and shooting 31 percent [like we did against ETBU on Feb. 13]. You got to get stops and those stops have to translate to buckets.”
Something Arbogast said in the locker room at halftime must have lit a fire inside the Tigers, as ETBU came roaring out of the tunnel to score nine unanswered in the first three minutes of the third quarter. That spurt was part of a larger 18-5 run to open the period, as the Tigers took a 41-40 lead on a layup from Bridget Upton. ETBU worked the ball inside to the paint, challenging the Cru’s post and scoring on several short-range shots.
“I think we were afraid to foul a little bit so we probably backed off in our post defense, we weren’t getting pressure on the ball and we talked about this at halftime,” said Morefield when asked about ETBU’s run. “We told them, ‘This game is far from over.’ We knew a run was coming.”
It was not an uncharacteristic comeback from ETBU, as Morefield and his staff witnessed a similar run to open the second quarter in the Tigers’ 72-59 semifinal win on Sunday over Sul Ross State.
“They’re 25-0, we’re playing in a championship game, you know a run is coming,” said Morefield. “We got two good teams playing, they’re not just going to lay down. The crucial part in scouting and watching other teams play them, we were like, ‘We can’t get a lead and then get away from what got us to that lead.’ And we never got away [from that].”
Despite the huge run, the Crusaders’ confidence did not appear shaken, as guard Olivia Champion scored UMHB’s final four points of the quarter. After UMHB concluded the third on a 6-0 run, an offensive shootout emerged in the early moments of the fourth, as the opponents exchanged blows. Despite several hard-nosed attempts by ETBU to regain the lead, the Cru held onto the advantage, knowing that their title hopes depended on it.
After falling to ETBU in Belton on February 13, Morefield noted that his team got open looks against the Tigers, but the shots would not fall. The opposite seemed to occur for much of Monday’s game, as the Cru shot 47 percent from the field compared to ETBU’s 39 percent, though they were outrebounded 49-24.
Forward Hannah Eggleston earned the ASC Tournament MVP award, and led the Cru with 17 points and Champion added 12. Kollmorgen finished her collegiate career with a seven-point, five-rebound performance. Eggleston, Kollmorgen and Benton were also named to the ASC’s All-Tournament Team.
The Cru went through the fires, and came out the other side with an ASC championship in hand. The regular season many not have gone how Morefield and his team would have liked, but you cannot write a better ending to the season.
“We had to go through the fires,” said Morefield. “Going through the fires helped put us in a position to go on the road and beat two No. 1 seeds. But I also know the talent on this basketball team.
“You hear a lot now, ‘dream to be great’. We don’t have to dream because here’s the thing, I know the talent that sits on this bus, I know the talent that is in that locker room. They’re very talented and they were more than capable to do what they did tonight.”