PITTSBURG — No. 9 Pittsburg State women’s basketball took its third loss of the season after falling 78-74 to No. 10 Central Oklahoma Thursday at John Lance Arena.
Central Oklahoma built an early double-digit lead after knocking down its first 14 shots of the game. Pitt State cut the margin to four by halftime, and took its first lead three minutes into the third quarter thanks to strong defense and 3-point shooting. UCO held a two-point advantage in the final 1:30, with the Gorillas coming up empty twice on a chance to tie before a pair of Broncho free throws with five seconds left sealed the win.
“I’ve been coaching 22 years, and I have never seen a team not miss a shot in a quarter. It was unbelievable — the start they had,” Pitt State head coach Lane Lord said. “I was just proud of our group for hanging in there, I think we were down 12 at that point … We really started to play well ... but in the fourth quarter, we made four straight mistakes defensively, we didn’t execute the scout, and they made us pay because that’s what good teams do.
“We are not quite ready to be an elite team with this group, so we have to continue to grow, mature and make those kinds of plays down the stretch. We are close.”
Pitt State (17-3, 9-2 MIAA) finished the game shooting 35 percent from the field, with five players finishing in double figures.
Freshman forward Athena Alvarado had a break-out performance for the Gorillas, finishing with a career-high 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting. She added five rebounds in the loss.
“She has shown some stretches of good play, but I thought tonight was her best night,” Lord said. “That’s her game, using her athleticism and using her speed … She is a big piece of what we do.”
Shelby Lopez was 4-of-12 from 3-point range on the way to 15 points, while Madison Northcutt and Haydn Herlocker each finished with 12 points for PSU.
Herlocker added seven rebounds and four assists, with Northcutt grabbing an additional five boards in the loss.
After starting the game 14 of 14 from the field, Central Oklahoma (18-1, 9-1 MIAA) closed out the contest shooting 35.2 percent.
UCO’s Jesheon Cooper, standing at 6-foot-5-inches tall, led all scorers with 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting. She added six rebounds and three assists in the win.
Olivia Mason and Marley Anderson each added 14 points, with Mason grabbing five rebounds to Anderson’s four.
Melina Murillo’s 11 points and team-high five assists gave the Bronchos four players in double-figure scoring.
Central Oklahoma started the contest on fire offensively, draining all 13 shots taken from the field in the first quarter on the way to a 29-17 advantage. Ultimately, the Bronchos converted on their first 14 attempts from the floor.
“Basketball is a game of runs, and you know when you are playing a good basketball team like that, they are going to go on a run,” Herlocker said. “You just have to be able to answer, and I think we did a good job of that.”
Cooper put her imprint on the game out of the gates, scoring five times in the paint during the first five-plus minutes of action, while Mason connected on a pair of triples to fuel the game-starting run.
UCO opened the contest with the first eight points before Lopez sank a 3-pointer to get Pitt State on the board with 7:26 on the clock.
The Broncho women missed their first shot from the field with 6:44 left in the first half, leading Pitt State 31-20. From there, the Gorillas held UCO to 2-of-9 shooting for the remainder of the first half.
“I think we definitely picked up our defensive intensity,” Herlocker said. “We focused on our scout in the second quarter, kind of did what we originally planned to do, and it helped a lot.”
Marina Bauza Rupert drilled a triple from the top of the key as part of six unanswered by the Gorillas to cut the lead to single digits, 31-23, with 6:17 to play.
Herlocker connected from beyond the arc to get PSU within six, 34-28, with 3:38 left in the second quarter.
No stranger to clutch shots, having made two half-court shots last season, Herlocker again came up big for PSU, drilling a step-back 3-pointer at the horn to send the Gorilla women into the intermission trailing by four, 40-36.
Pitt State came out of the break trailing by four, but continued defensive pressure coupled with success from long range flipped the momentum instantly.
Herlocker drilled a triple to start the third quarter, with Lopez and Northcutt getting back-to-back 3-balls to give Pitt State its first lead, 45-44, with 7:14 on the clock.
Herlocker found Alvarado in stride for a fast-break score to increase PSU’s lead, 53-48, with less than five minutes to play in the third period, with the margin shrinking to three, 62-59, to start the fourth.
Shatoya Bryson drove for a pair of scores, with Anderson adding an inside score, to start the Broncho women off on a 6-0 run to begin the fourth, regaining the lead, 65-62, with 7:56 to play in the game.
UCO added two free throws before the Gorillas stopped the 8-0 run with a make from the stripe by Lopez to bring the score to 67-63 with less than seven minutes to go.
Anderson drilled a deep 3-pointer from the wing to push the lead to seven, but Northcutt answered with her second 3-ball to make the score 70-66.
A steal from Burgess at the UCO arc turned into a runout at the other end, which was followed by a free throw from Northcutt to trim the lead to one point, 70-69.
After an Alvarado block, Burgess drew a foul and made 1-of-2 free throws to tie the game at 70-all with less than five minutes to play.
UCO took a two-point lead, 76-74, off a pair of free throws by Melinda Murillo with 1:27 left in the game.
The Gorilla women were called for a shot-clock violation with a minute to play, but had a second chance at the tie, in possession of the ball with 13 seconds left, but Burgess came up empty on a drive.
A quick PSU foul sent the Bronchos to the line with 5.0 seconds left, with Mason sinking both free throws to seal the win after making it a two-possession lead, 78-74.
The Gorilla women host Northeastern State in a 1:30 p.m. matchup Saturday at John Lance Arena.
-- Lucas Davis is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on twitter @LDsportswriter.