By Bill Scott, Saint Francis (Ind.) Sports Information Director
MARION, Ind. -- Talk about a perfect storm. Or should we say swarm.
Down 42-35 at No. 1-ranked Indiana Wesleyan University with just over seven minutes to play, fourth-ranked University of Saint Francis unleashed a full-court press that helped the Lady Cougars outscore IWU 19-6 in the time left for a 54-48 win in the Crossroads League Tournament Championship Game on Monday night.
It is the Lady Cougars' 10th conference tournament championship since 1994-95 and this 2012-13 USF team improved to 30-3, the first to win 30 games since the 2000-01 team finished 32-6. It is the fifth time a USF women's basketball team has won at least 30 games in a season, the first in 12 seasons for USF Head Coach Gary Andrews. It is USF's fourth conference tournament championship under Andrews' guidance.
Skylarr Shurn led USF's late-game heroics scoring 17 of her team-leading 21 points in the second half. Kayla Drake added 12 points and four steals for USF, which won its sixth consecutive game as well as the season series (2-1) with the Wildcats (30-3). The loss was IWU's first at home this season in 15 games and snapped a 35-game home floor win streak for the Wildcats. Kalah Baer led USF rebounding with 10 coming off the bench.
Senior Meghan Slusher made the key play of the game for USF converting a 3-point play with 1:01 to play that wiped out a 48-47 IWU lead. Slusher rebounded her own miss and banked it in for a 49-48 USF lead and added the free throw for a 50-48 USF lead.
"Meghan's play was representative of the way the whole team play that last seven minutes," USF Head Coach Gary Andrews said. "She got roughed up on the first shot, but she just stuck with it, got the rebound and executed the shot. She's a fierce, relentless competitor who made the kind of play you expect from a senior."
Shurn stole a pass and was fouled with 24 seconds to play and calmly plopped in the front end of the 1-and-bonus opportunity. She nailed the second shot with ease building the USF lead to 52-48.
Kalah Baer stole a pass in the lane for the Lady Cougars and by the time IWU fouled Jenelle Wilson, just 14 seconds remained. Wilson coolly splashed in both charity tosses to the delight of more than 200 USF fans who made the trip to Luckey Arena for an insurmountable six-point lead. Drake came up with a steal for USF as time ran out and the celebration began for a small portion of the nearly 1,300 fans crammed into the toasty confines where USF had never won in three previous championship game appearances.
USF also snapped IWU's two-game win streak in the conference tournament championship.
USF is 10-4 in the conference championship game, IWU is 6-5.
"I am so proud of our team the way they battled all the adversity, a hostile environment, to win this game," Andrews said in a hoarse voice. "19-6? Are you serious? I knew we put on a furious comeback. . . all I can say is I am speechless."
After USF had sprinted out to a 23-11 lead with 5:44 to play in the first half, IWU outscored the Lady Cougars 31-12 through the remainder of the first half and through the first 10:09 into the second half. Teneil Krebs rain bowed in a 3-pointer at 7:51 giving the Wildcats a 42-35 lead.
"We had used that press the last time we played here and got some steals, but we had to time it right because of our depth," Shurn said. "Once we got down, we were like we had to get going. It (losing) goes through your mind, but we used it as a motivator. We also wanted to go to Ivanhoe's after the game, so there was even more incentive along with winning a championship outright."
Slusher, who scored her 1,000th point in the first half, said she didn't feel phased by the deficit.
"We just had to buckle down and play better on defense," the senior said. "Honestly, at that point, we had to do something to get us going. As soon as (Gary) called the press, we got some steals and points off it. It sure was a nice game to get my 1,000th point tonight, too."
"There's no better feeling than cuttin' down their nets," Slusher added with a smile.
USF led 25-19 at halftime despite .357 shooting (10 for 28), .286 shooting from 3-point range (2 for 7). IWU trailed despite connecting on .444 (8 for 18) from the field. IWU was 3-for-8 from the free-throw line (.375).
"We've been the underdog all year, but we feel we're the better team, so we had to come out here and prove it," Drake said. "We struggled bad the second half, but we dug deep and didn't give up and I am proud of everybody for that."
Shurn started the comeback nailing a jumper just inside the free throw line cutting the USF deficit to five, 42-37. A Slusher steal and another bucket slashed the deficit to 42-39 with 5:36 to play. After a Wilson steal, Slusher knocked in a tough shot carving the deficit to one, 42-41, with 5:19 to play. A Paige Smith turnover led to a Shurn drive to the bucket and score and USF LED 43-42 with 4:32 to play.
"When you can score off turnovers like we did, the swing of points changes so quickly and that's what our press did," Andrews emphasized.
The game was far from over and the Wildcats bounced back scoring four consecutive points to seemingly regain control, 46-43 with 3:13 to play. Shurn cut the gap to 46-45 at 3:03, but Claire Ray hit two free throws at 2:18 for a 48-45. From that point IWU went 0-for-2 shooting and turned the ball over three times while USF locked the win up at the free-throw line in a game that featured four ties and eight lead changes.
Ray and Smith led IWU scoring with 13 points apiece while Taylor Goshert tracked down 11 rebounds. IWU committed 21 turnovers, USF nine.
For the game, USF won though it shot .352 (19 for 54) while IWU shot .432 (16 for 37). USF finished with 13 steals, IWU 5, but IWU held a 31-30 rebounding advantage.
The Lady Cougars will learn who they play in the first round of the NAIA Championship on Wednesday evening around 8 p.m.