ALLEN — In its first two matchups against Texas A&M-Kingsville, TWU pulled out victories in the final minutes of each game. But on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Lone Star Conference tournament at the Allen Event Center, it was a different story.
The Pioneers used their defense and an improved second-half offense to keep the Javelinas at arm’s length for most of the game and moved into today’s semifinals with a 68-61 victory.
“I thought it was a great game between two really good teams,” TWU head coach Beth Jillson said. “Kingsville just came out and we knew they were going to battle. I was really proud of our team and how we grinded it out.”
Senior Rebekah Cluley led all scorers with 17 points, while sophomore Danielle Westerfield came off the bench to score 13 points and junior Barbara-Scott Kolb added 12.
Cluely, who posted a career-high 31 points in TWU’s previous matchup against the Javelinas, was just 1-for-5 from the field with four points and four turnovers in the first half, but she found her game in the second half with 13 points.
“We weren’t hitting shots early on, but I think the greatest thing we did was get to the free-throw line,” Cluley said. “Obviously, that will get you some points and see the ball go in, so I think that was the best thing for me was to see the ball go in and I was able to hit some shots.”
With the Pioneers going just 1-of-2 from behind the 3-point line in the first half, Cluely and Kolb delivered several crucial 3s down the stretch to spurn any momentum Texas A&M-Kingsville could muster.
“I knew they were going to close out hard on me because I shot 3s really well at their place, so I used my pull-up [jumper] a little more this game, so that obviously helped,” Cluley said. “We kind of just forgot about it. It’s a new game. It was a tight one there, so we wanted to get out and get up by a lot, so that’s what we did.”
The Pioneers shot out to a 6-0 lead to start the game, but despite their poor outside shooting, the Javelinas came back to claim an 11-10 lead with 10:42 left in first half.
After Kolb knocked two free throws to give the Pioneers a 14-13 lead, TWU’s defense bowed up, which led to some quick offense on the way to a 13-1 run that gave them a 27-14 lead with 4:53 left in the half.
Even though the Pioneers’ defense came to play in the first, their offense struggled to take care of the ball as the Javelinas went on an 8-1 run to end the half down just six points, 28-22.
Texas A&M-Kingsville was limited to 22.7 percent from the field in the first half, making just five field goals (three 3-pointers) on the way to 27.9 percent for the game.
Junior guard Lindsey Mahone was the Javelinas’ leading scorer heading into Thursday’s game, averaging 13.9 points per game, but she picked up her third foul late in the first half and another one early in the second half, which sent her to the bench and limited her to just eight points.
The Pioneers outrebounded Texas A&M-Kingsville 27-11 in the first half — 55-39 for the game — but 12 turnovers bogged down the flow of the offense as they shot just 36 percent from the field.
“We didn’t particularly shoot the ball very well early on,” Jillson said. “It kind of felt like maybe there was a lid on the basket, but we rely on our defense and that was key for us. We talk a lot about defense and rebounding, and what kept us in the game was our defensive intensity and our ability to get stops and rebounding. To outrebound them by 16 was a big key for us, especially when you’re missing shots.”
After struggling in the first half, going 1-of-6 from the field, Westerfield helped re-establish the Pioneers’ integral post presence with both Ria Pateraki and Mary Kovtun in foul trouble. Westerfield finished with 11 points in the second half, while TWU’s shooting improved as it hit 46.7 percent from the field.
“I was really proud of her, because she was really frustrated early on,” Jillson said. “Obviously, those shots, if you could see her in practice, she doesn’t miss that. She was a huge presence for us inside. I think something else you have to look at is we had 18 assists on 23 field goals. That’s huge. We did a good job of sharing the basketball, making the extra pass and really executing offensively.”
Back-to-back buckets got the Javelinas to within 39-31 with 12:40 remaining, but a Cluley 3-pointer from the corner and a layup by Westerfield extended the Pioneers’ lead out to 44-31.
The Javelinas got within five at 45-40 with 7:23 left, but another 3-pointer by Cluley and a layup by Westerfield restored the Pioneers’ double-digit lead and allowed them to close out the game at the free-throw line.
The win advances TWU (16-11) to a semifinal matchup against Tarleton State (20-7) at noon today. TSU defeated Texas A&M-Commerce 84-55 to advance. The victory also keeps the Pioneers afloat in the Division II regional rankings, where they sit in the eighth and final spot for the regional tournament.
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.