Magical season comes to an end in NCAA Tournament
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Western Illinois (26-7) women’s basketball team’s dream season came to a close on Friday night in the first round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. The 14-seeded Leathernecks got off to a fast start but ultimately the three-seed Florida State Seminoles (26-6) roared back to seal an 87-66 opening round win.
“I thought our kids did a good job of continuing to fight,” Western Illinois head coach JD Gravina said. “There was a point that we were down 20 with a lot of time left and it looked like it could really get ugly, but our team kept fighting. I’m proud of them and I hope that these girls realize we had a historic season. We had great support back home and that made for a fun year.”
In the first ever meeting between the two programs and Western’s first time in the big dance since 1995, it took a couple minutes for each team to settle in.
Taylor Higginbotham set the pace for the Leathernecks scoring the first basket of the game on a layup and the first nine Western Illinois points. Florida State kept up with the duo of Imani Wright and Ivey Slaughter scoring on the mid-range jumper.
With 1:14 left in the first quarter, Olivia Braun converted a layup after a strong drive to the hoop putting Western ahead 16-11. Moments later, Michelle Farrow drilled a 3-pointer to hand the Leathernecks an eight point lead on the road in the NCAA tournament. After the first quarter, Western was in the driver’s seat leading no. 10 Florida State 19-12.
“We’ve had this overwhelming sense of fate and destiny, and there was part of me that thought, ‘Here we go,’” Gravina said. “I told the girls in the timeout that we just won that quarter and if we do that three more times, then we’re going to shock the nation. I also feel like it made our girls feel like they belong here having not gone to the NCAA tournament the past 20 years and playing against a power five team and you ask, are we going to be able to step out on the floor with those kids. But they believed in themselves and our emotions took us through that quarter.”
Early on in the second quarter, Morgan Blumer connected on a three to put Western up 22-14 as the Leathernecks tried to fend off the imminent run from Florida State.
A 12-2 Florida State run was capped off by back-to-back transition layups by ACC Player of the Year Shakayla Thomas. Western Illinois was forced to call a timeout with 4:14 remaining in the first half as they surrendered the lead 26-24.
Out of the timeout, Summit League Player of the Year and tournament MVP Emily Clemens answered with a triple to move Western back in front 27-26.
Even when the Leathernecks kept falling behind more players stepped up like the Summit League tournament hero Taylor Hanneman with a trifecta from the left corner to give Western a 31-30 lead with 2:23 left in the second quarter.
ACC Sixth Player of the Year Chatrice White muscled her way inside for two points to answer with two minutes left. Higginbotham had another triple left in her with 1:31 left in the first half as the Leathernecks snagged a 34-32 lead. Wright and White were able to score in the paint in the final minute to give Florida State a 36-34 lead at halftime.
“We remembered that and we talked to our kids at halftime about how important it was not to just go with what their habits were but to stay focused on what we needed to do to defend Western Illinois,” Florida State head coach Sue Semrau said. “We haven’t played a team like that much in the ACC. I was very proud of the way they adjusted in the second half and really proud of the way that we rebounded the ball.”
Leticia Romero was limited to one point at halftime but came out in the third quarter on fire hitting a 3-pointer and an 18-footer right out of the gate. Western Illinois fell behind by nine points 45-36 only three minutes into the third quarter after a steal and layup on the other end by Thomas.
Forty seconds later, Blumer answered with a big shot to cut the Seminoles advantage to two possessions. The Leathernecks took a critical blow with 5:38 remaining in the third quarter when Taylor Higginbotham left the game for a while with a cut underneath her left eye. She returned later in the fourth quarter.
Florida State grew its lead to 15 points with 1:32 left in the third after a 3-pointer from Wright. The Leathernecks did not give in just yet on back-to-back treys from Hanneman. Finally with some momentum, White quickly burst Western’s bubble with a layup as time expired in the third. After three quarters, the Seminoles led the Leathernecks 67-56.
In the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, Florida State outscored Western Illinois 14-1 to pull away.
“I thought we turned it up a notch and more importantly we knew that they could shoot the three so we knew at any time we had to be prepared for that kind of barrage,” Semrau said. “I thought we focused in really well and we got a chance to play some of our younger kids and got them some experience as well.”
The Leathernecks never gave up hope even when Florida State got into a groove. Clemens tied Ashley Luke’s single season scoring record at 623 points this year on a free throw with 1:38 left in the game.
Florida State proved to be a bit too athletic and won their 14th straight NCAA Tournament first round game in their fifth straight year in the big dance 87-66 over Western Illinois. The Leathernecks showed that they belonged on the grand stage and just how much the program has improved over the years.
“I think coming in as a freshman we finished a game or two above .500, and last year we really took that step with the post season berth,” Clemens said. “This year I think we were hungry for more, we have a group of selfless individuals and some of us, like Morgan Blumer, who was a transfer had seen this experience and talked it up. We just knew collectively that we could take the next step. Coach Gravina believed in us and this year has been special.”
Even while she was limited in playing time, Higginbotham paced the Leathernecks in scoring with 20 points. Blumer tallied 12 points and hauled in six rebounds while Clemens dished out seven assists and scored points.
The Seminoles received two double double performances from White (19 points and 14 rebounds) and Thomas (23 points and 14 rebounds) as they advance to face Mizzou on Sunday inside the Tucker Center in the NCAA Tournament second round.
Western Illinois finishes a historic season as the Summit League regular season and tournament champions. Jasmine Patrick and Mallory Boyle graduate but the rest of the team returns for the 2017-18 season.