Saint Mary's big rally propels Spires to KCAC semis

It was a game befitting a matchup of two teams separated by one place in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC).

The fourth-seeded Saint Mary Spires' women's basketball team played host to No.  5 Sterling in the opening round of the KCAC basketball tournament at the Ryan Center and despite all the ice outside, these teams brought a cauldron of intensity to a game with plenty riding on it.

Just over a year ago, Sterling built a huge lead only to see USM rally for a season-defining win and on this playoff night Wednesday, the Spires were faced with the same situation in a more dramatic scenario.

Consider the sequel better than the original. 

A Janae Barnes follow-up hoop and harm with 1.1 second remaining gave USM a 77-74 win and book a trip to play No. 1 Friends, a 64-60 winner McPherson, Saturday night in Wichita.

Saint Mary (18-11) was led by Candy De Los Reyes (22 points, five steals), Kierra Tate (12 points) and Barnes (10 points, seven rebounds).

“We got in a hole because they are a really well coached team and they were not the ones we wanted to face, because they are so well coached,” USM head coach Bruce Erickson said. “We talked in the second quarter about trying to do too many things and we just simplified the second half...we talked about sharing the basketball…and we wanted to look inside.

“Anytime you can play the way we did and go 0-for-15 shooting from the 3-point line and we still came back from 17 down to win it. That shows a lot of team character. Last game we hit 17 threes, this game we didn’t make any, so you have to take your hats off to Sterling – they played their butts off on defense. We only had three turnovers in the second half and that was a big deal.”

Both teams went at each other on the offensive end during the first quarter, as they went back-and-forth before Sterling claimed a19-16 edge after the game's first 10 minutes.

The game stayed pretty tight halfway through the next quarter, but then suddenly Sterling went on a bender wrapping up the first half ion a 15-3 bender to go up 41-26 at the break.

“We weren’t playing as a team and went away from what we usually do, which is sharing the ball and playing lockdown defense and we didn’t look like us,” Tate said.

“They just kept on scoring and we were just like ‘Oh, no, someone needs to get things started and take over,’ and that’s not our game,” senior Ashley Hinkle said. “We were making mistake after mistake and that taught us we can’t play as individuals and we play better as a unit, as one.”

USM shot only 28 percent in the first half and missed all 10 of its 3-point attempts over the first 20 minutes, while Sterling shot nearly 52 percent from the field.

No matter how many times the Spires came at Sterling in the third quarter hoping to cut the deficit, the guests keep their hosts at bay, but when Janae Barnes scored on a power move with 2:25 to go they USM deficit was 52-45.

Saint Mary would settle for a 58-51 deficit going into the final quarter.

“I remember when we were down and I was like ‘We’ve been down like this before and we can do it again,’ and against the same team,” Hinkle said. “We can do this.”

Then things got interesting.

An Hinkle hoop-and-harm with 8:27 remaining made the score 61-58 in Sterling's favor but the Warriors did not have the momentum despite their advantage.

Then a De Los Reyes layup at 7:05 pulled USM to within one, 63-62 and the Ryan Center erupted.

Then on a clear breakaway by De Los Reyes an obvious intentional foul took too long to suss out and the subsequent free throws were put on ice by more referee plodding and the Spires came away empty.

Yet, they wouldn't relent and would stay within a point as 200 ticks remained in regulation.

Then a De Los Reyes follow up with 2:35 left gave USM it's first lead in a long time, at 70-69.

A Kierra Tate follow up with 1:10 remaining put USM up 74-72 then a Sterling miss of two free throws allowed the Spires to hold that edge with 57 seconds left and in possession of the ball.

An ugly possession allows for Sterling to get the ball back still down two and they would capitalize with a transition layup to tie things at 74 with 22 seconds left.

That set the stage for Barnes’ heroics.

“As a team we shared the ball, got each other hyped and then our fans, our coaches everyone got into it, it got fun,” Tate said. “This wasn’t going to be my last game.”

“With our fans cheering for us it told us that we could do this, and we had faith,” Hinkle said. “Just knowing everyone was there for us, felt so good.

“We were not losing. This wasn’t going to be our last game. Never.”

A year ago, they went to the semifinals and got steamrolled by Tabor. So now, what do they have to do to avoid a worse kind of sequel.

“We have to play our game, not let Friends get up, and do what we can do as a team and stay true to what we do,” Tate said. “We have to keep our confidence up and trust our teammates.”

“(Last year) I think we were in our head and were like ‘This is Tabor, what are we going to do,’” Hinkle said.  

So how does a Spires’ team that has won 10 out of 11 prepare for the KCAC heavies who have swept the regular season set with USM?

“We are going to have to simplify our offense and take care of the basketball, because Friends wins when they are forcing 25 turnovers against you,” Erickson said. “You have to value the ball and get the ball reversed on them. You have to be aggressive and take it at them and we haven’t done that the first two games.”