INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — While he didn’t make much of it prior to his team’s NAIA National Tournament opener against Columbia (Mo.) College, University of Rio Grande women’s basketball head coach David Smalley admitted his program’s previous lack of success on the sport’s biggest stage was more than a monkey on his back.
“To be honest, and I kind of played it down, but it was like King Kong on top of me,” he said.
But on Friday night, the current version of the RedStorm finally managed to pry the oversized primate away from their veteran bench boss.
Ella Skeens poured in a game-high 29 points, including a tie-breaking three-pointer with just under a minute to play, to lift Rio Grande past the Cougars, 89-84, at Marian University Arena.
Rio Grande, ranked No. 20 in the final regular season coaches’ poll and the No. 7 seed in the Liston Quadrant of the 64-team tournament bracket, improved to 32-2 with its 10th consecutive victory — and its first in nine all-time tourney appearances.
Marian, the No. 2 seed in the quadrant, ousted 15th-seeded Olivet Nazarene (Ill.), 97-66, in Friday’s first game.
“Tonight was for the players from the other eight teams who got to the nationals, who put their hearts and souls into it but who never got to experience this. That’s what this program is all about,” said Smalley. “Our motto is ‘Why Not Us?’ and it’s something our kids believe in. I’m proud of what they did on this stage.”
The win certainly didn’t come easy, though, with 16 ties and seven lead changes serving as proof.
Rio twice trailed by five in the opening quarter before opening up an eight-point lead of its own late in the first half — and settling on a four-point cushion, 44-40, at the intermission.
Columbia (26-7), which had a nine-game winning streak snapped in its first-ever meeting with the RedStorm, forged seven second-half ties but didn’t manage to regain the lead until a three-pointer by Mackenzie Dubbert made it 81-80 with 3:05 left to play.
Rio responded with consecutive buckets by senior Chyna Chambers and freshman Aleea Crites to go back in front 84-81, but a pair of free throws by Dubbert with 1:38 remaining and another free throw by Allison Stiers 24 seconds later, tied the game at 84-all and set the stage for Skeens’ go-ahead heroics.
The Chillicothe junior hit the last of her four trifectas in the contest with 57 seconds left to put the RedStorm ahead to stay.
The Cougars had a final opportunity to play for a tie after calling a timeout with 15.6 seconds left, but Rio junior Hailey Jordan came up with a steal and was fouled with 10.6 seconds remaining.
She connected on both of her subsequent free-throw attempts.
Columbia missed on its final field-goal attempt of the night with seven seconds left, and the RedStorm ran out the clock after snaring the rebound.
Skeens, who also had a game-high 10 rebounds, finished 11-for-18 from the field — and was one of four Rio players to finish in double figures.
Freshman Kaylee Darnell of Wheelersburg scored 12 of her 19 points in the second half, while Chambers and Jordan tossed in 15 and 14 respectively.
Knights end Rio’s season
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — There’s no doubt that Marian University’s scouting report on the University of Rio Grande made mention of the RedStorm’s leading scorer — and the River States Conference Player of the Year — Ella Skeens.
But the fourth-ranked Knights showed that they’ve got an Ella on their roster who’s pretty good in her own right.
Ella Collier scored a career-high 30 points to lead her team’s quartet of double-digit scorers, as Marian used a second-quarter blitz to take control and roll past Rio 99-78 in the championship game of the NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship Opening Round on Saturday night at Marian University Arena.
The host Knights, which were the No. 2 seed in the tourney’s Liston Quadrant, improved to 29-4 with the victory — and advanced to next week’s Round of 16 at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.
Rio Grande, which was ranked 20th nationally and seeded seventh in the quadrant, saw its most successful season in program history end at 32-3.
Darnell and Jordan netted 13 and 12 points respectively in a losing cause, while Skeens was limited to 10 points — eight of which came in the second half — and a pair of blocked shots.
Senior Avery Harper, also playing in her final collegiate game, led the RedStorm with five rebounds.