Women’s basketball steamrolls into semi-finals
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — For the first time since 2012, the Western Illinois (24-6) women’s basketball is advancing to the semi-final round of the Summit League tournament. The Leathernecks proved why they are the top seed by crushing Denver (6- 24) 82-39 on Saturday afternoon. The 43-point victory is the largest margin of victory in a Summit League women’s basketball tournament game since 1993. Thirty-nine points is the fewest points a D-I team has scored against Western Illinois this season.
“That’s how you want to take care of business,” said JD Gravina, Western Illinois women’s basketball head coach. “Our defense was suffocating in the first quarter. I was really proud of our team in the second half and we kept our aggressiveness to blow the game open.”
Both teams adjusted to the neutral site atmosphere before Mallory Boyle scored on a two-handed lay-in three minutes into the game. Then Olivia Braun connected on a rightwing trey followed by Boyle drilling a triple. Western Illinois led 10-0 heading into the first media timeout. Denver didn’t score until two Madison Nelson free throws with 4:15 left in the first quarter.
The Leathernecks ended the first quarter on a 9-0 run capped off by a Taylor Hanneman corner trifecta with time running out. Denver trailed 19-2 after the first quarter without making a singe field goal attempt.
“We wanted to get out and pressure right away to get them out of their comfort zone a little bit,” Emily Clemens said. “We remained intense on the defensive end for the whole game.”
A little over a minute into the second quarter is when Samantha Romanowski made the first field goal for the Pioneers. Morgan Blumer’s steal and 3-pointer on the other end with 7:12 left in the second quarter gave the Leathernecks a commanding 26-4 lead.
Jordyn Alt took over for Denver in the middle of the second quarter scoring 8 points and securing key rebounds to cut the deficit down to 26-15 with 3:50 remaining in the second quarter.
Clemens immediately responded with a strong drive and layup followed two minutes later by a Michelle Farrow triple. With only five seconds left in the second quarter, Braun converted on a wide-open layup underneath the basket as Western Illinois led Denver 33-17 at halftime.
“They are the number one team in the conference for a great reason,” said Kerry Cremeans, Denver head women’s basketball coach. “We were able to pick it up in the second quarter, but Western is a phenomenal team. They are hard to guard and they play a defense that we don’t see all season long.”
Gravina knew being the one seed facing the eight seed that he needed to keep his team focused in the second half.
“I think it helped us losing that second half at Denver even though we won the game pretty handily,” Gravina said. “That was the message to our kids that they used for motivation in the second half. We wanted to end that game with some more momentum.”
Western started the third quarter on an 8-0 run including 3-pointers from Boyle and Clemens. Romanowski drained a Pioneer trey with 5:21 left in the third quarter before Clemens answered right back with a three of her own making it 48-24 Leathernecks halfway through the third quarter. After three, the Leathernecks were dominating Denver 53-26.
“Normally we’re a pretty contagious shooting team,” Clemens said. “Being there for one another and having confidence in each other was key.”
Fifteen made threes set a Summit League women’s basketball tournament single game record.
The Leathernecks kept the three ball flying with Blumer, Higginbotham and Braun all drilling threes before climbing out to a 72-31 advantage.
Braun recorded a double-double with 10 points and a careerhigh 10 rebounds. Clemens paced the scoring effort with 17. She dished out nine assists as she became the Western Illinois single season leader in assists. Blumer (15), Hanneman (11) and Boyle (10) rounded the double figures scoring effort.
After cruising past Denver 82- 39, the Leatherneck focus shifts to Omaha at noon on Monday, Feb. 6 inside the Denny Sanford Premier Center.
“We want to keep our momentum and mentality right,” Gravina said. “That’s the big thing for our preparation.”
Omaha defeated South Dakota on Sunday to earn a matchup with the Leathernecks.