Leathernecks clinch share of the Summit

Women’s hoops take care of Fort Wayne

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Jake Thompson

The women’s basketball team takes a moment to congratulate each other on their 77-51 home victory.

Campbell Atkins

MACOMB, Ill. — The Western Illinois women’s basketball team (22-6, 12-4) defeated the Fort Wayne Mastodons (5-23, 2-13) 77-51 at Western Hall for their seventh straight win on Wednesday and earned at least a share of the regular season Summit League title. The South Dakota Coyotes (22-6, 11-4) fell to the IUPUI Jaguars (21-7, 11- 4) before the conclusion of the game, giving Western their piece of the crown.

“It’ll be a great accomplishment to look back on, but it honestly doesn’t mean anything to us right now,” said Western Illinois women’s head basketball coach J.D. Gravina after the win. “We know South Dakota is going to come out hungry Saturday after their loss at IUPUI, and we’ll just have to be ready.”

The Leathernecks came out hot to start the opening quarter. They went on a 10-0 run with the help of back-to-back 3-pointers from Olivia Braun and Morgan Blumer. Western seemed streaky early but was unable to stay consistent enough to build a large lead.

“Sometimes a hot start can actually hurt a team like ours because of the way we play,” Gravina said. “It’s almost like we think the plays we make are going to be easy and we can lose that sense of aggression.”

Fort Wayne forward Selena Lozada made it clear that the Mastodons came to play. She led all scorers in the quarter with 7 points and even hit a shot from behind half court as time expired to cut Western’s lead to one after the first 10 minutes of play.

Western guard Emily Clemens went down hard after running into a Fort Wayne screen before the long shot by Lozada. She was shaken up twice that night, but always came back and made a big difference for the Leathernecks.

“We obviously don’t like seeing (Clemens) get banged up out there, but she’s a tough kid,” Gravina said. “I believe she deserves conference player of the year if we win Saturday.”

Clemens led all scorers with 25 points when the night was done. She also added 12 rebounds to earn her seventh career double- double. Before the game, she was honored at half court for joining the 1,000-point club in last week’s win over South Dakota State.

Clemens would sit out the first three minutes of the second quarter, but Western was still able to jump out to a 6-0 run thanks to back-to-back 3-point field goals from Taylor Higginbotham and Blumer.

The Leathernecks couldn’t seem to distance themselves from the Mastodons for the remainder of the half. Two buckets on consecutive possessions from Fort Wayne guard De’Jour Young brought Western’s lead back to just 1 point as the end of the second quarter approached. Clemens made her presence felt in a big way in the final minutes with a beautiful floater as time expired to take a 35-32 lead at the break.

“We knew this one wasn’t going to be easy,” said Gravina. “They were the tougher team in the first half tonight. We played them tight on their first moves but when they continued to attack we’d just let them go.”

Fort Wayne was able to tie the game for a brief moment with a 3-pointer from Rachel Rinehart to start the third quarter of play. Clemens was down on the court for the second time early in the half but immediately got to her feet and stayed in the game. On the very next play, she drove to the bucket and was fouled. She would hit another bucket moments later to cap a 7-0 run for Western.

The Leathernecks entered the final quarter up 53-45 and would finally put a comfortable distance between themselves and the Mastodons. All told, they outscored Fort Wayne 24-6 in the fourth and coasted to a 26-point victory.

“We really locked down defensively in the second half,” said Gravina. “We allowed just 19 points and did a much better job sticking with them and guarding them for whole possessions. That allowed us to create turnovers and space better on offense. We started to play better overall, and it was nice to create a cushion in the fourth quarter.” Morgan Blumer hit seven 3-pointers in the victory and was second among all scorers with 18 points.

“I think we’ll use this game as more of a stepping stone for Saturday,” Blumer said after the win. “We definitely didn’t overlook Fort Wayne when we prepared for them in practice, but we need to build off that and keep the same intensity to finish strong this weekend.”

Forward Olivia Braun was third among total scorers with 12 points, but made her presence felt elsewhere. Braun finished the night with a total of seven blocks.

The Leathernecks will have a chance to earn sole possession of the regular season Summit League title on Saturday when the Coyotes come to town. It would be their first outright conference title since the 2005-06 season.

The Summit League standings are still surrounded by many questions in terms of playoff seeding. While the Leathernecks have locked at least a share of the regular season title, there is still no guarantee that they will be the Summit’s top seed unless they win Saturday.

If they were to lose to South Dakota, they could potentially fall into a four-way tie with the Coyotes, IUPUI and SDSU (20- 7, 11-4). They would still split the regular season crown with those two schools but seeds one-through-three would be decided by tiebreakers.

Western defeated the Coyotes 86-78 on Jan. 28 in Vermillion, South Dakota. The win started their current seven-game winning streak and snapped a 24-game home victory streak for South Dakota. Blumer led the way with 28 points, closely followed by Clemens with 24.

The Leathernecks are in the midst of a fantastic run but refuse to celebrate too early. With a win over South Dakota, they can finally step back and appreciate what they have accomplished so far this season. Tip-off is scheduled for Saturday Feb. 23 at 4:30 p.m. in Western Hall.

Twitter: @campbellatkins4