By: Bill Scott, Saint Francis (Ind.) Sports Information Director
FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- University of Saint Francis Head Coach Gary Andrews had a simple message for his second-ranked Lady Cougars before they took the floor for a historic confrontation.
'Beat No. 1, BE NO. 1," and USF went out and executed Andrews' message to close to perfection in the second half for an 85-76 win over No. 1 Indiana Wesleyan University before more than 1,200 fans at Hutzell Athletic Center on Saturday afternoon.
USF outscored the Wildcats 51-42 in the second half in the first-ever Crossroads League (or Mid-Central College Conference) game between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the NAIA Top 25. No question Lady Cougars' faithful got their monies worth watching their team shoot .667 in the second half on 18-for-27 shooting.
Akyah Taylor led USF scoring with 27 points (USF career high) and got plenty of offensive support with three teammates in double figure scoring as well. Brooke Ridley scored 19 points and snared 11 rebounds for her fourth double double this season. She also had four blocked shots and connected on 8-of-11 shots. Skylarr Shurn added 16 points for the Lady Cougars (12-0, 3-0 Crossroads League) and Jenelle Wilson added 13 points, 11 in the second half.
"We talked about attacking the basket and getting some easy baskets at halftime," Shurn said. "We executed what we talked about, that's what mattered most. That's what you have to do against IWU because their coach knew what we were trying to do. They had us well-scouted. But I didn't feel like we had the 'W' until the final buzzer went off. You can never let up against a great team like that."
Shurn felt the USF balance made the difference.
"Akyah was amazing," Shurn continued. "She got on the block down there and really overpowered everyone down there. Brooke play really well, Jenelle hit some shots and got the ball to open players. We got positive contributions from everybody."
Taylor, who scored 20 or more points for the third consecutive game, got her baptism into the most intense rivalry in the CL.
"I knew they were a good team coming in and had heard a little history, you know, talk around, but I was just out there playing, another competitive game," Taylor said. "I think the big crowd helped us keep our energy up on the bench and on the court."
Taylor felt confident the Lady Cougars would win soon after the second half got underway.
"We picked up our defense, stopped the dribble penetration, and that enabled us to rebound, and get our fastbreak working," Taylor observed. "I knew we could attack the basket, it was just a matter of doing it."
"I knew we could win all along, but didn't feel like we had it until the last minutes or so," Ridley said. "We just had to knock down free throws. Great to have some time off, get this win, and now we can concentrate on finals."
After Shurn and Katrina Blackmon traded buckets to start the second half, Kalah Baer put back a rebound to give USF the lead for good, 38-36, with 18:19 to play. Ridley made it 40-36 at 17:45. Val Sohasky cut the USF lead to 40-38 at 17:17, but Shurn made it 42-38 scoring at 16:26. Blackmon missed two free throws, Ridley grabbed the rebound and got the ball out to Shurn for a fastbreak bucket with 15:37 to play.
Taylor Goshert, who scored 17 of her 28 points in the second half, hit a second free throw trimming the IWU deficit to 44-41 at 14:37, but Jenelle Wilson buried a 3-pointer from the corner near the end of the USF bench for a 47-41 USF lead. A 7-2 USF surge opened USF's first double-digit lead in the second half, 55-45, and the Lady Cougars controlled as much as a 13-point advantage on three occasions, the last at 71-58 after a Ridley jumper in the paint at 4:11.
The Wildcats whittled the deficit to seven, 78-71, with 37 seconds to play, but Taylor Wilson hit two free throws with 34 seconds to play for an 80-71 advantage. Goshert bombed in a 3-pointer drawing IWU within 80-74 with 24 seconds to play, but Taylor scored on a fastbreak layup. Goshert missed a jumper and Shurn hit one of two free throws. Jessica before Brown scored a rebound basket for IWU, but Jenelle Wilson hit two free throws with two seconds left to finish the scoring and lock up the upset for USF.
Neither team led by more than five in the first half. USF opened up three five-point leads, but the Wildcats took leads of 29-26 and 34-31 before Shurn tied the game at 34 with a 3-pointer from just left of the top of the circle.
"We got some stops to start the second half and I thought that was crucial," Andrews observed. "We attacked the basket out of those stops and finished shots. We're hard to guard and when we've got everybody scoring like we did in the second half, we can cause some problems. Akyah was awesome, and she's very unselfish. Jenelle played an all-around game. We got good contributions from everybody.
"We don't shoot many 3s, so getting Skylarr's 3-pointer gave us a good feeling heading into halftime even though we hadn't played our best," Andrews said.
USF shot .577 for the game on 30-for-52 shooting while IWU finished a .353 on 24-for-68 shooting in a game that had 10 lead changes. IWU had a 39-38 rebounding edge and 8-4 advantage in steals. USF outscored IWU 46-38 in the paint.
This was a first -- the first time in Crossroads League or the former Mid-Central College Conference -- when two league members are ranked 1-2 in the NAIA Top 25. And it gets even better. They played each other the same week they became 1-2. IWU was No. 1 in the preseason Top 25 while USF was No. 4.
USF was the last team to beat the Wildcats, who are 9-0 and winners of 14 consecutive games dating back to a 54-48 loss to the Lady Cougars in the 2013 CL Tournament championship game on Feb. 25 at IWU's Luckey Arena.
Taylor has scored 20 or more points in seven of USF's last nine games.
The Lady Cougars resume play on Sun., Dec. 22 when they play the University of Northwestern Ohio at 2 p.m. at Hutzell Athletic Center.