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Western holds off IUPUI in overtime to qualify for March Madness

Danny Frey

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — For a moment it seemed as if the Western Illinois women’s basketball team was going to settle for Summit League tournament runner-up. That moment didn’t last long before Taylor Hanneman provided life for the Leathernecks off of the bench in the form of a game-tying three at the end of regulation. Western’s dream season continues as the Leathernecks punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995 by defeating IUPUI 77-69 in overtime.

The 11-game winning streak matches a program record set during the 2004-05 season.

“It is just surreal,” said Western Illinois head coach JD Gravina, “When we started going on this run and we started believing, it seemed like every little thing worked out for us. It seems like we’re a team of destiny.”

To reach the Summit League Tournament Championship, the Leathernecks first had to survive a tough test from fifth-seeded Omaha. The Mavericks were fresh off upending South Dakota the day before.

Western did not look tight again, and after a Taylor Higginbotham steal turned into a layup on the other end, the Leathernecks led 7-0, forcing an early Omaha timeout two minutes into the game.

Halfway through the first quarter is when the Mavericks woke up and senior leader Mikaela Shaw used a nice move inside to give Omaha its first lead of the game 16-14 with two minutes left in the opening quarter. Morgan Blumer helped the Leathernecks go on a quick 6-0 spurt to grab a 4-point lead with one minute left, but again Shaw answered in the final seconds of the first period on a runner in the lane. Western Illinois was clinging onto a 22-20 lead after one quarter.

It was back and forth in the second quarter before Sioux Falls native Ellie Brecht began heating up from beyond the arc. Omaha took an 11-point lead with 1:22 left in the first half before Emily Clemens answered with a corner triple trimming the Maverick lead to 47-39 at halftime.

Western began to chip away at the deficit in the third, but Omaha was answering almost every shot. At one point in the game, the Mavericks were shooting over 60 percent.

Clemens drilled a trifecta to cut the Omaha advantage to just three with 3:32 left in the third quarter.

Then it was a defensive battle for two minutes until Blumer knotted it up with a straight-on trey. Shaw, as she did the whole game, answered back with a right-wing three to give the Mavericks a 62-59 lead heading to the fourth.

Clemens tied the score again with 6:44 remaining in regulation on another corner triple, but Shaw on the next possession scored while drawing the foul. She converted on the free throw and put Omaha ahead 70-67.

The knock-down-drag-out continued when Michelle Farrow became clutch off the bench, scoring 8 points all in the fourth quarter, and put Western in front 75-74 with four minutes remaining. But only 17 seconds later, Abi Lujan drained a three from the wing to put Mavericks back ahead by two.

Back-to-back Blumer threes gave the Leathernecks some cushion with an 81-77 advantage. Following a through traffic layup by Shaw, Clemens decided she wanted to go right to the basket, making it 83-79 Western with one minute to go.

Omaha wasn’t done yet, with another wing triple by Lujan cutting the Western advantage down to 1 point again at 83-82 with only 34 seconds left.

The Leathernecks didn’t make it easy, going 1-4 from the free throw line down the stretch, but the defense buckled down when it mattered. Shaw ran out of time and did not get a buzzerbeating shot off in time in the lane as Western held on for a 84-82 victory to advance to first Summit League tournament final since 2006.

“Omaha brought their A game and shot tremendously,” Gravina said. “I thought we were a little bit off in the first and second quarter or if it was just that Omaha played really well. Down the stretch, we’re an offensive team and our offense carried us. To have that firepower is nice because you never feel you’re out of the game.

Clemens notched her first career triple double of 21 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. Blumer knocked down the timely shot and finished with a team-high 22 points. Of course it was Shaw, in what could potentially be her final collegiate game, delivering a 29-point performance.

On championship Tuesday, Western Illinois had a showdown with number-two seed IUPUI, a team that has beat the Leathernecks five times in a row, including twice this season.

“We had a lot of vengeance playing IUPUI,” Blumer said. “I can’t explain the feeling right now.”

The Jaguars drew first blood on a corner trey by Sydney Hall, but Clemens quickly answered a minute into the ball game with a layup. Hall would connect on another three with 4:17 left in the first quarter, followed by a Jenna gun layup to put IUPUI ahead 13-6. Western countered with an 11-2 run before Hall tied the game at 17 on a mid-range jumper. It was all knotted up after one quarter.

Clemens and Kelsi Byrd exchanged 3-pointers to begin the second quarter. There wasn’t much scoring other than trips to the free throw line in the middle of the second, which is the way IUPUI likes to play.

With under a minute left before halftime, Gunn scored three points the old fashioned way and Hall drilled a wing triple for a quick 6-point Jaguar swing. Farrow was key again moving some momentum back to Western with only four seconds left in the second quarter, bringing the tally to 32-30 IUPUI at the half.

Western took a 38-35 lead with 8:19 to go in the third quarter thanks to back-to-back threes by Clemens and Blumer. From there, the Leathernecks looked for separation and got a little bit of breathing room up 44-37 on a Hanneman three ball with 4:23 remaining in the third quarter.

Hall stepped way out for three from the left wing and buried it to bring IUPUI within four, trailing the Leathernecks 46-42 after three quarters.

The Jaguars had fight left in them in the fourth, but the Leathernecks were still in control leading 56-50 halfway into the fourth quarter.

Holly Hoopingarner cut the Western lead to one, 58-57, on a free throw with 1:10 left. A few moments later, Emily Clemens canned two free throws. Boyle was tested at the free throw line and hit one of two fouls with 13 seconds left to give the Leathernecks a two-possession lead 61-57.

Out of a timeout, Caitlyn Tolen banked in a deep trifecta from the left wing, completely changing the landscape of the game with 11 seconds still ticking in regulation.

On the ensuing Leatherneck possession, Clemens was fouled but missed both free throw attempts and then fouled Hoopingarner as she was moving the ball up the floor. Hoopingarner connected on both free throws to put IUPUI in front 62-61 with only 3.5 seconds remaining.

“We realized the opportunity that was in front of us,” Clemens said. “We tried to stay composed; it’s hard not let your emotions get the best of you. I would say that mine probably did, but we believed in each other.”

Higginbotham threw the sideline inbound pass away to Allex Brown of the Jaguars who in turn knocked down both free throws on the other end. The Leathernecks trailed 64-61 with only 2.2 seconds left when Gravina spent their last timeout.

Leatherneck fans will not forget the next play anytime soon. Hanneman took the inbounds pass, took a dribble, set her shot and nailed it, sending the game to overtime tied at 64.

“I was really nervous,” Hanneman said. “The play coach drew up should have been for somebody (else), I was thinking. I was cold and didn’t even know if it was going to hit the rim, but the fact the team had so much confidence in me, I felt like it was going to be a good shot. I had a whole bunch of jitters. The team believing in me is what got me through the two seconds that lasted a lifetime.”

Western came out energized in overtime, starting with a Higginbotham triple only 20 seconds into the extra period. Hanneman found pay dirt on a corner three and Blumer was right behind her with a trey of her own. IUPUI was forced to call a timeout with 2:37 remaining in OT and trailed Western 73-64.

“From there it was our game,” Higginbotham said. “We knew there was no way we were going to get another chance like that. We kept saying don’t stop believing. We knew we were going to be the better team today.”

From there all the Leathernecks had to do was hold on, and they did to hoist the Summit League tournament title by ousting IUPUI 77-69.

“I think when we came here we weren’t the favorites,” Gravina said. “Our kids played with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, but to win this game the way we did it — to have something and then to lose it and get it back is such an emotional roller coaster.”

Clemens broke Nicole Seekamp’s Summit League regular season assists record on Tuesday by dishing out nine helpers. She also scored a gamehigh 20 points. Blumer added 18 points and six rounds even though she was battling through foul trouble all game. Higginbotham delivered 15 points and five rebounds while Hanneman, the hero off of the bench, contributed 12 points.

“I don’t know how to put it into words,” Higginbotham said. “There was so much more at stake here, but we’re going to the big dance. I can’t believe I’m saying that. It just sounds insane but I’m so happy. There’s no group of people I would rather do this with.”

Hall, before she fouled out in the fourth quarter, led IUPUI in scoring with 18 points, and Gunn helped out with 16. Mikale Rogers was shut down and limited to 3 points but still managed 14 rebounds, yet IUPUI as a team only grabbed five offensive rebounds all game.

The Leatherneck’s ticket to the NCAA Tournament is punched and Western will find out its opponent on Selection Monday at 6 p.m.

“This is a dream come true,” Gravina said. “I’m so thankful for these kids for making my dream come true.”

Twitter: @smallmedorlarge

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The independent student newspaper of Western Illinois University. Serving Macomb since 1905.