The TWU offense was as cold as the snow and ice along Bell Avenue on Thursday night, shooting 27.3 percent from the floor against Cameron, which held a 20-point lead with 3:22 left in the first half.
Finally gaining traction, the Pioneers came alive with a 7-0 run to end the half and were able to flip the script in the second half for a 62-58 victory at Kitty Magee Arena. Senior guard Rebekah Cluley led the way with a career-high 23 points, and junior forward Ria Pateraki had 19 points and 11 rebounds for TWU.
“We weren’t pleased with ourselves,” Cluley said of the team’s performance before halftime. “It’s funny, when we go into halftime, on the whiteboard we have a ‘do better’ and a ‘good.’ Under good it said, ‘the last three minutes.’ Under do better, it said ‘everything else.’ We knew we weren’t playing to our full potential. It was pretty intense. Twenty points is scary to come back from, but we know we’re a good team, so we battle back.”
Down 58-56, Pateraki’s layup tied the game with 90 seconds remaining, and Cluley’s free throws gave the Pioneers a 60-58 lead.
Up one possession, the Pioneers went to their defensive bread and butter, as junior guard Ashley Salazar made a crucial steal with less than five seconds remaining to help seal TWU’s eighth victory in nine home games.
As intense as the game was, TWU coach Beth Jillson looked toward her defense’s lack of intensity in the first half and its change in attitude in the second half.
The Pioneers (11-9, 7-4 Lone Star) allowed the Aggies (9-10, 1-8) to shoot 48.3 percent from the field in the first half, but in the second, TWU limited them to just under 30 percent.
“The first 15 minutes, our defensive intensity was not where we needed it to be,” Jillson said. “We allowed them to penetrate, especially their [power forward]. We were all disappointed with our defensive intensity. We cut the lead down and we went on a run before half. We really focused on getting stops and scoring on the other end. Thirteen points was manageable.”
Cluley, who had nine rebounds and was 8-of-12 from the floor with four assists, two blocks and two steals, said it was recognition of the Aggies’ defensive schemes that allowed her and Pateraki to get cleaner looks in the second half to the tune of 50 percent shooting for the Pioneers.
“I think the biggest thing was that we played to our matchup,” Cluley said. “I saw I had driving lanes. Ria saw that she was getting doubled. We would just work together and we clicked. We figured out what they were doing defensively, and it worked to our advantage.”
In the second half, TWU’s outside shooting was much improved. The Pioneers also scored 20 points in the paint in the second half compared with 10 in the first.
“Some games we’re great at it, and some games we need people to push us to be great at it,” Cluley said of the team’s ability to get the ball into the post. “We’re bigger than most teams, so we’ve got to play to that. When it’s not working, we’ve got to figure out other ways, and going inside-out was the way. They were doubling our posts. [TWU’s forwards] made great passes to the guards, and we started hitting [shots].”
Jillson and the Pioneers made a point to win the opening four-minute segment of the second half, and they climbed to within 37-27 at the 16:28 mark on Pateraki’s jumper from the free throw line.
Back-to-back layups by Pateraki and Cluley inched the Pioneers to within 44-42 with just under 10 minutes to play.
TWU guard Toree Mason knocked down a pull-up jumper from the line to tie the game and came up with a steal and a layup on the ensuing possession to give the Pioneers their first lead since early in the first half.
“We have composure. We don’t freak out. We knew we were going to win that game,” Cluley said. “That’s how it’s been with every close game that we’ve had. We’re more relaxed than a lot of teams, and we’re getting better every game. The biggest thing is that we kept our cool.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.