BILLINGS, Mont. — Over the course of the 2017-18 season — especially at its conclusion — nobody would’ve questioned how poised or how tough the Shawnee State women’s basketball program is.
It has, after all, taken home four consecutive Mid-South Regular Season Championships and three consecutive Mid-South Tournament Championships for a reason.
However, if there were a game across the 2017-18 campaign that epitomized why Shawnee State was seeded as the No. 1 overall unit in the 2018 NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament and finished the year atop the NAIA Division I Coaches’ Top 25 Poll, its thrilling NAIA Opening Round contest with Grand View (Iowa) was certainly it.
Trailing by margins of 52-44 and 79-69 with 6:04 left in the third quarter and 7:12 remaining in the fourth quarter of action, Shawnee State came back not only once, but twice as the Bears used a thrilling fourth-quarter display from Ashton Lovely, a game-winning shot by Bailey Cummins with 27 seconds left in regulation, and a critical block on the opposite end of the floor with 11 seconds left to claim a huge 88-82 victory over the Vikings on Thursday evening at the Rimrock Arena in Billings, Mont. — the host of the NAIA Division I Tournament.
For Jeff Nickel, the contest was, without question, a dogfight that Shawnee State earned with its gritty and gutsy play, especially in the second half.
“Hard-fought win for our kids,” Nickel said. “They fought tooth-and-nail all night long, and I’m really proud of them. That was a really good basketball team that they beat (in Grand View). I definitely think that’s one of the toughest teams we’ve faced all year long. They may have had 10 losses, but they were 11-9 at midseason, then reeled off 12 wins in a row before finally losing one, and those wins came against some very good basketball programs. They were a team that created a lot of problems for us from a matchup standpoint.”
In the opening quarter of play, two familiar faces took control as Ashton Lovely and Hannah Miller combined to score 15 of Shawnee State’s 23 first-quarter points off of four three-pointers from the pair as SSU took early control with a five-point first quarter advantage. Overall, the duo combined to hit four of Shawnee State’s nine treys in the game in the opening quarter — a critical point of emphasis — as the Bears ultimately obtained a 23-18 lead.
The second quarter, however, proved to be a different story for the Bears. When Miller collected her second foul less than two minutes into the stanza, and Lovely followed with her second foul less than a minute later, Grand View made a serious charge toward the point as the Vikings obtained major contributions from a rotation that went 10 deep with ease.
A total of six Grand View players — including Rachel Danielson, Shaliea Jamison, Kiana Peterson, Gabby Reyerson, Blair Silliman, and Rylee Voss — all nailed triples as Grand View ultimately scored the nets by shooting a stellar 8-of-16 from the three-point line in the first half, and outscored SSU by a 24-14 tally in the second quarter, to grab a 42-37 halftime advantage. Shawnee State also was called for nine fouls in the first half while Grand View was called for only three as the Bears saw its five-point lead turn into a five-point halftime deficit.
“They’re a really good three-point shooting team,” Nickel said. “They’ve got seven, eight players on their team that can hit the three. They all can dribble, pass, and shoot, and they present some problems for us with that because their ability to space the floor forced our post players to come out to the perimeter and guard them. That really hurt us in the first half. Their post players had five of their eight three-pointers, and (Blair Stillman) connected on some really deep shots. So the foul trouble did hinder us quite a bit in the second quarter.”
Shawnee State, however, didn’t give in. Despite trailing by as much as a 52-44 count with 6:04 to go in the third quarter of action, the Bears furiously rallied as Ashton Lovely and Madison Ridout nailed back-to-back treys to cut the Grand View lead to 57-56 on a 12-5 spurt, then tied the score up at 63 apiece as Bailey Cummins connected on a third trey. However, three second-chance putbacks by Kiana Peterson and Blair Stillman — the latter doing so on two separate occasions — kept the Vikings in front by a 70-67 tally after three quarters of play.
“All of our veterans are poised,” Nickel said. “When it came down to winning time, girls like Madison, Ashton, Hannah, Shania, and Lydia really stepped up and made the plays on both ends that needed to be made. Those kids didn’t fingerpoint or blame anybody, they just kept plugging away and kept fighting, and that’s just what they do. We’re successful as a team because they set a tone where when things get tough, they get going and find a way.”
But after letting Grand View go on a 9-2 spurt, Shawnee State, again, showed the poise that made it the top-ranked NAIA Division I unit at the end of the year.
Down by its largest margin of the contest, 79-69, with 7:12 to go in the fourth quarter of action, Lovely took over by finding Sienna King for a bucket, nailing a three-pointer, and burying four critical free throws to cut the Grand View lead all the way down to one with just over four minutes to go. Ridout then canned the first of two free throws to tie the score at 79 apiece with 3:16 to play to draw the game even, and, after drawing another foul, capped off a 12-0 SSU run by nailing a pair of free throws with 2:24 to go to give SSU an 81-79 lead.
“Ashton just made a lot of clutch plays down the stretch,” Nickel said. “She made great decisions with the basketball, she was able to attack and finish, and she did a really good job from the free throw line. She’s a great player, she’s a winner, and she’s a competitor. We’re just really happy that she’s on our team.”
Both teams then traded the point from there in a frantic finish. Stillman’s bucket with 2:06 to play knotted the score, and Miller and Peterson traded a free throw apiece to keep the score deadlocked at 82 heading into the game’s final minute.
But in the waning moments, Shawnee State — and Bailey Cummins, in particular — proved to be too strong. With 27 seconds left, Cummins drove the lane and scored to put the Bears up by an 84-82 tally, then collected a huge block with 11 seconds remaining to seal the deal as Lovely, who collected the ensuing rebound, was fouled. The junior then nailed four free throws to ice the game.
“We had a lot of foul trouble in the first half that we overcame, and we were able to get some key stops and make some key defensive adjustments in the fourth quarter,” Nickel said. “We held them to 12 points in that quarter, which was big, and that was a result of us getting our core people back on the floor together in that fourth quarter. That enabled us to make that run during the fourth quarter and come back to take the victory.”
Lovely ultimately finished with a game-high 25 points to lead SSU, while Ridout finished with 19 points, six rebounds, two steals, and a block for the Bears, who improved to 31-3 overall with its 26th straight win. Miller’s 15 points and three assists, Cummins’ 11 points, seven assists, three steals, and two blocks, and Sienna King — who arguably had the best game of her inaugural campaign — obtained 10 points and seven rebounds as all five starters finished in double-figures.
Silliman finished with a team-high 16 points for Grand View, while Peterson and Madison Sickles finished with 12 points apiece for the Vikings (23-11).
No. 4 Wayland Baptist (Texas), 10 p.m. EST (8 p.m. MST) — Rimrock Arena, Billings, Mont.
With its victory, No. 1-seeded Shawnee State will take on No. 4-seeded Wayland Baptist (Texas) in the Second Round of the NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament. Wayland Baptist (25-6), who defeated Lyon (Ark.), 78-62 in the NAIA Opening Round, is led by Maci Merket (14.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, three assists, and 2.6 steals per game), Kendrick Clark (10.5 points per game off of the bench), and Morgan Bennett, who is averaging 9.3 points, 6.2 assists, and two steals per game as the team’s point guard.
Six additional players, including Deborah VanDijk (9.5 points, 54.7 percent shooting), Nina Sato (7.9 points, 48.3 percent shooting, 1.5 blocks), and Jada Riley (6.8 points, 2.3 steals per contest) among them, are all averaging at least four points per game for another well-balanced unit.
“They’re an up-tempo basketball team,” Nickel said. “They like to get out on the break and run, and they shoot the three very well. They’re kind of like us in some ways. They like to play four out and one in. Defensively, they’ll play man-to-man. They’ll occasionally press some. They’re a long, athletic team, so they take to different challenges very well. They’ve got a very good point guard (in Morgan Bennett) and some really good shooters on their team. It’s a short turnaround, but we just passed the first step, and we’ve got a good opportunity to take another step.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT