In any athletic stage, there are great games, and then there are contests that are so intense in every facet that it raises the said program in question up a notch from where it was prior to the game’s commencement.
On Thursday evening, the No. 1-ranked Shawnee State University women’s basketball program, playing as the top dog for the first time in 17 seasons in an NAIA Poll — and for the first time ever in the NAIA Division I ranks — made sure that the rest of the country knew that the honor was a well-deserved one.
The Bears, in a home bout against No. 3-ranked and MSC foe Campbellsville University, used two late free throws from Coal Grove native Hannah Miller to tie the score with 18.7 seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime. Miller then followed by scoring Shawnee State’s first 11 points in overtime en route to outscoring Campbellsville 15-3 in the overtime session and taking home a 90-78 overtime victory on Thursday evening as part of Portsmouth Community Night.
For Jeff Nickel, the fifth-year head coach couldn’t have asked for anything more in a contest that featured a packed house and an intensity level that had people coming away from the contest feeling as if the game was more like a tournament atmosphere than anything else.
“It was a great environment,” Nickel said. “Just a great crowd that was engaged and involved all night. They really helped us during the game. Ashton (Lovely) was really good throughout the game. She was definitely, definitely on. I felt like Hannah was the same way as we got later into the game. She was really, really special the last 10 minutes or so of the game, was really special. Madison Ridout just had a great second half, did some really good things defensively, and just did a really good job of rebounding the basketball for us done the stretch.”
From the outset, Lovely wasted no time putting on a show for the near-capacity crowd as the junior from Jamestown, Ohio drained four consecutive threes in the opening quarter to keep Shawnee State right in the heat of the battle. The 5-9 guard ultimately canned each of her seven makes from behind the arc as Lovely — who tied with Bailey Cummins for a team-high 45 minutes — scored 12 of her 21 points in the first quarter alone as the Bears trailed by just one, 17-16, after a quarter of play. The sensational talent added seven rebounds and two steals in addition to her 21-point output.
“Ashton was just on fire,” Nickel said. “She just kept shooting deeper and deeper and deeper the longer that (the shooting streak) went on.”
Lovely’s hot shooting stroke then spread to the entire unit as the second quarter went along. Ridout and Shania Massie, who starred at Jackson and Greenfield McClain during their high school prep days, each canned three-pointers along with Lovely — who added her fifth three-pointer of the first half for good measure — as Shawnee State shot 12-of-28 from the floor but went a blistering 7-of-13 from three-point range as a team in the first half of play. The Bears ultimately took a 35-29 advantage in the quarter before Campbellsville closed the margin down to 35-33 at the halftime break.
Setting up the blistering offense for Shawnee State during this stretch was Bailey Cummins, who put together another well-balanced performance as one of the best lead guards in the country. Cummins ultimately accumulated five of her seven assists in the first half, and added three steals and three rebounds to boot to affect the game in all facets once again.
“Bailey did well for us,” Nickel said. “She got us into our offense. She’s one that helped create a lot of our balance. Bailey was able to get the ball to our scorers tonight in their most effective spots, and by doing that, she did her job. We constantly talk about just doing your job on that particular night. I thought that we did a good job of sticking to the gameplan throughout the game. There’s some moments where things didn’t go our way, but during the overtime and the early stages of the fourth quarter, I felt like we did a really good job of honing our gameplan, doing our job, and executing.”
In addition to Ridout, Lydia Poe, who combined with her former Jackson teammate to supply 11 of Shawnee State’s 23 points in the frame, used her strong inside presence and her excellent rebounding skill to limit the overall effectiveness of Jordan Doram.
The junior forward scored 17 points on a solid 8-of-15 mark from the field but only grabbed two rebounds and had six turnovers to no assists as Poe, at 6-2, bothered the 5-11 Doram — who only averaged 1.6 turnovers per contest coming in — all night long as the Bears obtained a 58-53 advantage after three quarters of play. Poe’s 15 points and eight rebounds, along with Ridout’s 15 points and 11 rebounds, were huge numbers in the final outcome.
Still, Campbellsville kept coming.
Down 68-61 with 4:59 to play in the contest, Madison Faulkner stepped up big for the Tigers as Faulkner, a sophomore forward, scored a team-high 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting to not only fuel a 51.6 percent shooting mark for Campbellsville in the second half, but lead the Tigers back to within 71-69 with 2:39 to play. Campbellsville ultimately took a 75-73 advantage with just 24.9 seconds to go as Faulkner finished through contact and added the ensuing free throw to give the Tigers a one-point lead before the Tigers added to it with another free throw.
“Both of those teams on the floor (on Thursday evening) can win a national title,” Nickel said. “It was a fun game to watch, it was a fun game to be apart of, it was two teams competing for a league championship, and it was two teams who are competing for a No. 1 seed in the NAIA Tournament. These are two teams that can go to the Final Four and win a national championship.”
However, with its No. 1 ranking and its unblemished MSC mark hanging in the balance, Miller stepped up in a big way for Shawnee State with her crafty work. Her outstanding poise from the charity stripe (an astonishing 15-of-16 from the free throw line) ultimately proved to be the difference, as did her shooting in overtime — where two of her three field goals came from.
“That’s our team,” Nickel said of Miller’s instant, late-game production. “Our team is built off of balance, and any of those guys can get the job done at any moment. Our fortunes can change very, very quickly, and that’s the beauty of our basketball team.”
In the win, Lovely, Cummins, and Ridout each put together garguntuan efforts as the trio each played at least 40 or more minutes during the affair, with Lovely and Cummins never even coming out of the contest en route to playing all 45 minutes. Miller’s 34 minutes of playing time, along with Poe’s 28 off of the pine, proved to be critical, as well. Nickel, however, credited his players for their wherewithal, as well as Doran Martin, who serves as Shawnee State’s Strength and Conditioning instructor as part of his assistant coaching duties.
“They’re tough kids,” Nickel said. “Campbellsville played a zone, so we were basically sliding into spaces, spotting up, and getting into the gaps offensively. However, they were attacking our legs a little bit on the offensive end, and our defense continued to fight. That’s what I was impressed with. We showed a lot of grit and toughness that was necessary to get the stops that we needed to get. The kids are really tough. Doran does an excellent job of making sure the players are fresh and in great condition. He gets the players stronger every offseason and does a really good job with them.”
Games like this, however, can’t be won without extra brainpower. And with the help of Jack Branon, Tim Sammons, Abby Feuchter, Doran Martin, and Jonessa Moore, Nickel knows that is certainly loud and clear.
“(Jack) Branon and (Tim) Sammons have been with me for five years and have done an outstanding job,” Nickel said. “Abby just does a great job of scouting and bench coaching, and Doran with the strength and conditioning. My staff just does an outstanding job. They give me the information and make my job easier. They are a great help and aid in games. When you win games like that, there’s a lot of stuff that goes during the game, on the bench, and behind the scenes that those guys don’t get a lot of credit for. They’ve done an outstanding job ever since they’ve been with me.”
Shawnee State (24-3, 11-0 MSC) will host Georgetown (Ky.) (8-18, 2-9 MSC) on Saturday, Feb. 17 as part of Senior Day while Campbellsville (22-4, 9-2 MSC) will travel to Pikeville (13-14, 4-7 MSC).