When TWU is playing its best basketball, defense is the cornerstone of its success. On Wednesday at Kitty Magee Arena, the Pioneers closed to within a possession in the final minute but trailed the entire game and lost 69-62 to Texas A&M-Commerce.
The second consecutive defeat for the Pioneers (15-11, 10-6 Lone Star) ended their regular season, with the conference tournament to start Wednesday in Allen.
On senior night, TWU senior Rebekah Cluley had 15 points while freshman Kenesha Saygo led all scorers with 16 points.
Saygo delivered a 6-0 run to inch the Pioneers within two at 64-62, but the Lions sunk two free throws to extend their lead to four points. Cluley had a chance to get the deficit back to two points, but her layup with 16 seconds left didn’t go through.
“I thought we had a chance,” TWU head coach Beth Jillson said. “I thought Saygo did a good job getting to the free throw line. We were able to stop the clock. We had a good look with [Cluley], and she makes that shot nine out of 10 times. She’s the person I want to have the ball at the end of the game. I would give her the ball again in a heartbeat. They made their free throws down the stretch.”
The Pioneers shot 41.4 percent from the floor — compared with 38.3 percent for the Lions — but TWU couldn’t find its offensive touch for consistent stretches of time.
“Shot selection was poor at times,” Jillson said. “We didn’t get the ball inside. Two of our keys were to get the ball inside and get to the free throw line. They got to the free throw line a lot more than us, and that was one big difference in the game.”
TWU was 14-of-18 from the line, but the Lions found their way to the charity stripe more frequently (20-of-32), which kept the Pioneers out of their transition offense.
“Our offense starts with our defense, and I’ve said that all year,” Jillson said. “That’s why we were so stagnant. We could never get a rebound, get out and push. To me it starts with getting stops on defense and running the floor. We never got them on their heels. It was either they scored or a dead-ball situation.”
The Lions held a 33-30 lead at halftime and were outshot in the second half, but the Pioneers were ice-cold from 3-point range, going 0-for-10 for the game while the Lions were 3-for-12.
The Pioneers fell at home for just the second time this season, with their other loss coming against first-place West Texas A&M. TWU built a seven-game winning streak before falling in their final two tilts.
For Jillson and the Pioneers, it’s back to the fundamentals in preparation for the tournament.
“We’ve played a lot of close games this year,” Jillson said. “I think it’s good any time you can put yourself in that situation. Our players have done well down the stretch and we’ve come away from a lot of close games with the win, but it was too little too late. In this conference, you can’t wait until the last minute.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.