The Rams (10-13, 7-8 MEC) survived a near epic fourth quarter collapse and hung on to beat the Hilltoppers (7-14, 6-9 MEC) of West Liberty University.
In the first half of action, both offenses were on fire and could not be stopped. After every Rams’ basket, the Hilltoppers would sprint down court to convert layups or short range shots. The Rams, despite their strong offense, were looking for an answer to stop the Hilltoppers’ pace.
The answer came with a consistent, steady offense that moved the ball and found the open shooters, who then executed their looks.
As the second quarter went on, the Hilltoppers’ pace slowed down, perhaps from fatigue of their fast-moving defense.
Shooting an astonishing 17-of-25 (68 percent) in the first half vaulted the Rams into a 42-30 halftime lead.
Both teams felt defensive presence in the third quarter. The stingy defensive play did not allow great shot opportunities for either squad. The Rams won the third quarter 19-12 to build a 61-42 lead going into the final frame, but somehow it did not feel that the Hilltoppers were out of it.
Starting the fourth quarter with a 13-0 run, the Hilltoppers had the Rams on their heels. The Hilltoppers unleashed a three-point barrage, making four three-pointers to dwindle the Rams’ lead. Marissa Brown of the Hilltoppers (17 points, 8-of-12 field goals), much like she had all game, hurt the Rams down low with her height advantage in the fourth quarter.
A basket by Emily Bucon (team-high 18 points) of the Hilltoppers made just a one-point game with 2:22 left to play. Going on a 22-4 run, the Hilltoppers had nearly completed a terrific comeback.
Junior guard Kayla Tibbs of the Rams responded when her team needed it most with a three-pointer with 2:01 left in regulation, but the Hilltoppers did not quit. Brown again pounded the Rams inside to cut the lead to 68-66 with 00:49 left.
From there on though, the Rams were able to make enough of their free throws down the stretch (16-of-23 for the game) to cement a 73-68 home win.
Another key cog in the Rams failure to put the game away was the play of Johnie Olkosky of the Hilltoppers. She finished with 10 points, but also was tied for the game’s leader in assists with six.
In the win, junior guard Morgan Arden of the Rams lit up the scoreboard with her game-best 21 points. She made 9-of-12 free throws to help seal the game. Senior guard Cara Mason posted 14 points and tied Olkosky of the Hilltoppers with her game-best six assists, getting her teammates involved.
Faced with a size disadvantage all night long, senior forward Liz Lyers fought hard and recorded 12 vital points while leading all players in rebounds, totaling nine during the contest.
When asked about the near fourth quarter collapse, Coach Eckleberry of the Rams said, “We thought the game was over.”
Eckleberry praised the Hilltoppers’ fighting spirit as well.
“We couldn’t score in the fourth quarter. They went zone [defense], but a testament to our players, they made some plays when we had to. I think Kayla Tibbs’ three at the top of the key was huge for us,” Eckleberry said.
Looking to keep up their momentum at this point in the season, the Rams face a big road test Saturday when they travel to Wheeling Jesuit. Tipoff is 2 p.m.
Anthony Bracken is the Sports Editor of The Picket. He can be reached at email@example.com