The Shepherd Rams women’s basketball team (15-14) came away with a dramatic 76-74 win after storming back from a six-point deficit in the final 43 seconds in their first round MEC Tournament matchup against the Concord University Mountain Lions (13-16) on Wednesday afternoon in Charleston, West Virginia.
Shepherd fell behind Concord by a 74-68 score with just 43 seconds remaining off of two made free throws from senior forward Heather Chapman that seemed to dim the Rams’ chances of advancing to the second round.
The head coach of the Rams, Jenna Eckleberry, called a timeout to gather her troops and draw up a play to get the Rams a good shot to reduce the Mountain Lions’ lead.
Eckleberry, to no surprise, put the ball in the hands of her senior point guard Morgan Arden, the MEC’s all-time leading scorer. Arden, down by six, chose to venture inside and made a jump shot in the paint to cut the Mountain Lions’ lead to four with a 74-70 score with just 34 seconds remaining.
The Rams forced Mountain Lions’ junior guard Andreanna Pool to cough up the ball and turn it over right after receiving the inbounds pass, giving the ball right back to Shepherd.
Arden then got the ball in her hands and almost immediately launched a three-point shot that went in to trim the Mountain Lions’ lead to one with a 74-73 score with 27 seconds left in the game.
During the shot, Shepherd junior forward Liz Moormann was fouled on the play, earning her a trip to the free throw line to potentially tie the game.
With the fate of the Rams’ seniors careers and her team largely in her hands, Moormann calmly sank the free throw attempt to tie the game.
In the midst of a collapse, the head coach of the Mountain Lions, Kenny Osborne, called a timeout to try and calm down the nerves of his team.
The Mountain Lions, with the ball, had a chance to get a potential winning shot off, but that never happened thanks to the swarming Rams’ defense.
After winding down the clock, Pool turned the ball over again with four seconds left in regulation thanks to the defensive pressure put on display by the Rams.
Shepherd immediately called a timeout to draw up a potential game-winning shot to avoid overtime, while the Mountain Lions were just hoping for the extra session to get refocused.
Junior guard Lauren Reed, inbounding the ball on the Mountain Lions’ end of the court, passed the ball to Arden just beyond the three-point line. Upon receiving the pass, Arden quickly attacked the basket and launched a running, fade-away jump shot that banked off of the glass and in to give the Rams a 76-74 lead with two seconds remaining.
The entire Rams’ bench and players went into an absolute frenzy, filled with joy and passion. Shepherd had to scramble to get back into their proper defensive positions, because the game was not quite won yet.
The final buzzer sounded before a Concord player managed to get a desperation half-court heave off, cementing an unconventional victory for Shepherd.
Following the game, the head coach of the Rams, Jenna Eckleberry, via text messages, explained what the mindset of her and her team was when facing they were down by six with 43 seconds left.
“[N]not to give up, 43 seconds is a long time,” Eckleberry said. “We knew we had to get stops and scores and we practice that all the time. We knew we had the players to make big time plays.”
From the free throw line, the Rams shot 15-for-18 (83.3 percent), while the Mountain Lions made just 10 out of their 20 free throw attempts (50 percent).
Eckleberry described how important it was for the Rams to come out on top in this category and how the Rams were able to generate their free throw opportunities.
“[Y]yea we weren’t shooting well from the outside, so we wanted to be aggressive and attack the rim off the pass and dribble,” Eckleberry explained. “We did a great job of making the free throws.”
Arden, who led the Rams with 21 points, shot 7-for-24 from the floor, but made extremely clutch plays when Shepherd needed her to the most. Sharing the ball was also a strength for Arden, who had four assists in the game.
With her 21-point performance, Arden now has scored 634 points this season, the most in school history in a single season. Sherry Price of the 1985-86 Rams team held the previous record with 615 points 32 seasons ago.
Arden, via text messages after the game, elaborated on the Rams were able to take the momentum away from Concord in the final 43 seconds and come away with the win.
“We stayed composed in the final minute and made shots when we needed them the most,” Arden explained. “That final stop was huge for us and we took advantage of it.”
Arden cited the team’s competitive spirit as being a key ingredient in the Rams’ comeback victory.
“Most importantly, everyone kept playing hard and never gave up,” Arden said. “Tomorrow, we just need to come out ready to play. We have to play great defense and be able to take care of the ball.”
Concord, today and in previous matchups against Shepherd this season, has displayed a great level of difficulty in defending Arden this season. Arden has scored 96 points against Concord this season (32.0 points per game) combined in the three games that the two teams have faced each other in this season.
Wednesday afternoon’s game marked the 19th time this season alone that Arden has scored a minimum of 20 points, helping to show how valuable she has been to the Rams this season (in addition to seasons past).
Freshman forward Sydney Clayton had another valuable performance for the Rams with her 14-point, 13-rebound double-double effort against the Mountain Lions. Clayton shot very efficiently from the floor (5-for-10) and stepped up on defense with two blocked shots as well.
Senior guard Tiffany McKinney came through as well on the defensive side for the Rams. In addition to her 11 points and eight rebounds, McKinney’s strong defensive instincts helped her register four blocks and three steals.
Junior guard Kari Lankford, as she has done numerous times this season for the Rams, contributed in a variety of different areas to help lead the Rams to victory. Lankford recorded six points, five rebounds, and a game-high nine assists. She helped find open shooters and get the Rams good shot opportunities to help get their offense going.
Pool, despite the critical turnovers late in the game, still managed to score 11 points, pull down three rebounds, and record three assists. Playing defense was clearly in Pool’s mindset as well during the game, as she recorded two blocked shots against the Rams.
No Mountain Lions player had a better day than freshman forward Riley Fitzwater, who frustrated the Rams all game long with her 23-point, 19-rebound double-double effort. To say that Fitzwater had an impact on the game from both ends of the floor would be an understatement.
Fitzwater not only shot an extremely efficient 10-for-12 from the floor, but also blocked six Rams’ shots and generated two steals. Fitzwater used her 6’4″ frame to her advantage and dominated the Rams at numerous times during the game.
Shepherd came through with the victory despite shooting just 37.8 percent (28-for-74) from the floor, including a 31.3 percent effort from beyond the arc (5-for-16).
Concord faired better shooting wise than Shepherd but still came out on the losing side. The Mountain Lions made 46 percent (29-of-63) of their shot attempts. From beyond the arc, the Mountain Lions connected on 35.3 percent of their attempts (6-of-17).
Turnovers were the really the key factor in this matchup, especially late in the game. The Rams were able to generate 16 Mountain Lions’ turnovers while turning the ball over just six times themselves. Coming out of this category plus ten turned out to be a huge advantage for the Rams.
On Thursday afternoon, March 1, the Rams will face off against the number-one seed in the MEC Tournament, the Glenville State Pioneers, at 6 p.m., in the quarterfinals. With a win, Shepherd would play in the semifinals of the MEC Tournament on Friday, March 2.
Eckleberry gave her thoughts on what will be key to pulling off the upset over the Pioneers.
“[W]we have a huge challenge tomorrow in [G]glenville,” Eckleberry said. “We know what to expect. We have to handle [their] there pressure and guard the 3 [three] point line.”
Anthony Bracken is the sports editor of The Picket. He can be reached at email@example.com