RIO GRANDE — Less than five minutes into Tuesday night’s national tournament matchup with Siena Heights University, the University of Rio Grande found itself trailing by four points — and with its leading scorer and rebounder watching from the bench in foul trouble.
But the definition of a strong team is one whose members step up when needed in key situations.
For the RedStorm, it was Reagan Willingham and Kaylee Darnell who led the efforts in preventing the upset-minded Saints from marching on.
Willingham kept Rio afloat in its sea of first-half distress by connecting on four three-point goals and scoring all of her 14 points before the break, while Darnell scored 23 of her career-high-tying 27 points in the third quarter — as the RedStorm pulled away for a 109-78 victory in the NAIA Women’s Basketball Championship First Round presented by Ballogy at a jam-packed Newt Oliver Arena.
Rio Grande, the top seed in the four-team pod and the No. 4 seed in the Duer Quadrant, won for an 11th straight time and pushed its record to 29-3.
The victory also sent the RedStorm into Wednesday night’s bracket final against Grace (Ind.) College, which eliminated the University of Pikeville in Tuesday’s second game.
Siena Heights, the No. 4 seed in the bracket and the No. 13 seed in the quadrant, closed its season at 24-7.
Ella Skeens, Rio Grande’s senior standout and the River States Conference Player of the Year, was whistled for her second foul with 5:31 remaining in the first quarter — and forced to the bench for the remainder of the half with the Saints nursing a 12-8 lead.
It was Darnell, a sophomore from Wheelersburg, who — with the game’s final outcome still far from decided at that point — who proceeded to bury the visitors from Michigan in the third stanza.
Darnell, who was limited to a first-quarter field goal and a pair of second-quarter free throws in the opening half, went 10-for-11 from the field — including a three-pointer — and 2-for-2 at the foul line in the period for 23 points.
She scored Rio’s first eight points in the stanza and 23 of her team’s first 27 points in the second half — Skeens had a pair of buckets to account for the other four — as the five-point halftime lead ballooned to 76-59 with 1:59 remaining in the quarter.
Darnell who, ironically, did not score in the final period, equaled a season- and career-high of 27 points — set in a win at Carlow University on Dec. 10.
She also finished with a game-high six assists and pulled down five rebounds.
Siena Heights got no closer than 15 points the rest of the way, and Rio’s largest lead of the night at 32 points, 108-76, came after a three-pointer by senior Courtney Pifher with 58.2 seconds left in the game.
Darnell scores 27 vs. Grace
RIO GRANDE —Wednesday night marked the final appearance of the 2022-23 season for the University of Rio Grande women’s basketball team on its home court at the Newt Oliver Arena.
And head coach David Smalley’s squad made sure it left a lasting impression on its red sea of supporters.
The 12th-ranked RedStorm opened up a 13-point halftime and then buried Grace College (Ind.) in the third quarter — en route to an eventual 99-55 win in the second round of the NAIA Women’s Basketball Championship presented by Ballogy.
Rio Grande, the top seed in the four-team pod and the No. 4 seed in the Duer Quadrant of the 64-team national tourney, improved to 30-3 with the win — and punched its ticket to the Round of 16 and a meeting with the quadrant’s top seed, Campbellsville (Ky.) University, on Monday at 7 p.m. at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.
The victory was also the 12th consecutive triumph for the RedStorm and secured consecutive 30-win seasons for the first time in program history.
Sophomore guard Kaylee Darnell led 11 different scorers for Rio Grande with a game-high 26 points.
She also finished with five assists and tied for game-high honors with four steals on the heels of a career-high 27-point performance in Tuesday night’s win over Siena Heights (Mich.) University.