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UNK’s offense explodes in third quarter, sets up date with Fort Hays State in tournament final

Loper women’s basketball beat Washburn in MIAA Tournament semifinals
Elisa Backes goes to basket
Elisa Backes goes to basket(UNK Athletics)
Published: Mar. 6, 2021 at 9:02 PM CST
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HAYS, KS. (KSNB) - The Nebraska-Kearney women’s basketball team went on an 11-0 run early in the second half and flashed its usual strong defense to pull away from Washburn, 59-40, Saturday evening in an MIAA Tournament semifinal game in Hays, Kan.

The 14th-ranked and third-seeded Lopers (21-3) advance to Sunday’s title game against 5th-ranked and top-seeded Fort Hays State (22-22). The Tigers overcame a second half deficit to down fourth-seed Emporia State, 77-72, in today’s early game. Tipoff for Sunday is set for 2 p.m. This is UNK’s first-ever appearance in an MIAA Tourney title tilt; the program went 6-3 in such games during its Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) days.

UNK hadn’t seen seventh-seeded Washburn (12-12) since the second game of the year. The Ichabods had pulled back-to-back upsets, beating rival Emporia to end the regular season and then downing nationally-ranked Central Missouri Wednesday night in the first round. That strong play continued in the first quarter as the ‘Bods sunk 9 of its first 14 shots to grab a 20-16 lead. A battle of the top two defensive teams in the MIAA, UNK was almost equal to the task at they were 7 of 14 from the field over the first 10 minutes.

“The first quarter I thought we were a little slow to get going defensively. We gave up 20 but after that we were much, much better,” UNK head coach Carrie Eighmey said. “We gave up too much in transition in the first quarter but we definitely guarded better after that.”

Things grounded to a halt in the second quarter as the teams combined for 15 points on 5 of 25 shooting (1 of 8 threes). UNK finished strong, however, using a 7-0 half-ending run to lead 25-24. The stretch featured a three from Crofton senior Kelsey Sanger, two free throws by Iowa sophomore forward Shiloh McCool and a paint jumper from Elkhorn senior post Brooke Carlson.

“Offensively I thought we were steady. There were possessions where we got good shots but they just didn’t go down. We shot the ball decently from the three-point line (6 of 16) … we were able to get some looks because they were double teaming in the post,” Eighmey said. “Klaire hit a few for us and that helped spread the floor.”

The Lopers dominated the second half to the tune of a 34-16 margin. The game-clinching 11-0 run erased a 26-25 deficit and encompassed just two minutes of action. A put back bucket by Kansas junior forward Elisa Backes started things with a Sanger layup off a block forcing WU to call timeout. That didn’t help as South Dakota junior Klaire Kirsch followed with a there, the first of three she hit over the final 5:37. It was suddenly 36-26 and the ‘Bods didn’t get closer than eight the rest of the afternoon.

“Our defense created good offense for us in the third quarter. We were able to play in transition and got some easier buckets,” Eighmey said. “We also did a better job of playing inside out which is what we wanted to do.”

Washburn came in at 36 percent (18 of 50) from the field with sophomore guard Aubree Dewey having a team-high 16 points. She came in averaging just 5.7 points but made 8 of 14 shots and also managed three assists, three rebounds and two steals.

The Lopers got a team-high 16 from Backes with South Dakota sophomore guard Trinity Law at 12 on 5 of 8 shooting. Next, Sanger had 10 with Kirsch (nine points & nine rebounds) close to a double double. Finally, UNK’s bench out scored WU’s by a 32-4 margin with the Lopers going a perfect 7 of 7 at the line.

Hays downed Kearney by scores of 61-49 (away) and 68-60 (home) back in January. Starting point guard Haley Simental (Pueblo West, Colo.) didn’t appear in either due to injury.

“Hays is a really good team and have two (Jaden Hobbs and Whitney Randall) that are shooting it at a high rate. They have a lot of weapons on offense,” Eighemy said. “It’s an interesting matchup because we have a lot of similar players whose strengths are the same. It’ll be a tough game but one we’re looking forward to.”

UNK’s last tournament title came back in the 2003-04 season with its last appearance in a title game coming during the 2007-08 season.

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