PITTSBURG — It can be a daunting task facing off against the No. 6-ranked team in the country. The Pittsburg State women’s basketball team was up for the challenge as they handed Missouri Western State an 83-80 loss Wednesday at John Lance Arena.
After falling into an early double-digit deficit, the Gorilla women battled back to tie the game up by halftime. The second half saw Pitt State play with the lead more often than not, establishing momentum down the stretch. The Gorillas held a one-point advantage inside the final 15 seconds and got a pair of free throws from senior Cathy Brugman with 3.7 seconds to play following a MWSU turnover to seal the win.
“Everybody is exhausted. All five of our starters played pretty much the whole game,” Pitt State head coach Lane Lord. “It all goes back to the kids believing in each other. They had pride with every possession tonight, and we just willed this one to a win.”
With the Gorillas up 81-80, PSU's Shelby Lopez missed a 12-foot jumper from the baseline with Missouri Western’s LaQuinta Jefferson coming away with the rebound. She turned it up court but was stripped of the ball with PSU’s Haydn Herlocker falling on top of it. The Gorillas got the timeout with 4.7 seconds on the clock.
Pitt State (16-4, 10-4 MIAA) threw the inbound pass to Brugman, who was fouled immediately. With ice in her veins, Brugman knocked down both shots from the stripe to put PSU up three.
“I have been there before. I think it got to me the first time [I was in that situation in my career],” Brugman said. “I have confidence in myself now when I head to the free-throw line.”
Brugman finished the game with 15 points, four rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal.
Missouri Western (18-2, 12-2 MIAA) had a shot at the other end to tie it up, but the ball missed everything as it fell down into the hands of the Gorillas with the final buzzer sounding.
The Griffons were 18-0 on the season and ranked as the No. 5 team in the nation before suffering a home loss to Nebraska-Kearney on Jan. 23. The Gorilla women knew they had their work cut out for them as they prepared for a Griffons team looking to get back into the win column.
“Not only are they at the top of our conference, but I think they’re the best team in division II,” Pitt State senior forward Kylie Gafford said. “We were definitely prepared for them to come out and play [hard]. We just had a lot of fire. We thought we should have won [the game] when we played at their place, so we had a little bit of revenge in our veins.”
Gafford finished with 24 points as the team’s leading scorer. She had five rebounds and a team-high three blocks in the upset win.
Sophomore shooting guard Mikaela Burgess finished with 19 points on 5-of-13 shooting, making four 3-pointers.
Herlocker had 11 points in the win, adding four rebounds, four assists and a team-high three steals.
She has had a knack for the dramatics this season, knocking down numerous last-second shots in recent weeks. Herlocker continued her magic in the closing seconds of the first half against the Griffons, sending her team into the intermission on a high note after drilling her second half-court shot of the season as the horn sounded to make the score 42-all.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Gafford said. “She didn’t make it on Sports Center the first time, I don’t know how she’s not going to make it this time. She gives us all the momentum. She continues to give us big shots.”
The game had 12 ties and nine lead changes between the MIAA foes.
Pitt State won the turnover battle 16-13 and outscored the Griffons 20-10 on points off turnovers.
The Gorillas came out of the locker room at the half with a shot of life. MWSU held the lead for majority of the first half, but it was Pitt State who took command in the final two quarters.
Burgess pushed the PSU lead to seven in with 1:57 to go in the third quarter when she split a pair of Griffon defenders away from a Gafford screen at the top of the key for a left-handed scoop layup to make the score 64-57.
Pitt State held a lead as large as eight points in the fourth period on a Brugman layup with nine minutes to go in the game.
“We talk about how important the first five minutes are, in the second half especially,” Brugman said. “Being able to come out and take the lead to set the tone like that was big for us today.”
The Griffons answered with an 11-0 run to regain the lead, 72-69, with 6:14 left to play.
Jefferson took over for Missouri Western, scoring the final nine points of the run, the final six of which came on baskets in the lane. She finished with 29 points to lead all scorers.
“It was kind of fun for the fans to get to watch LaQuinta Jefferson,” Lord said. “She is the best player in the country, and she is a pro. She certainly didn’t disappoint tonight.”
Herlocker stopped the bleeding with a triple to tie the game at 72-all with 5:02 to play.
Pitt State moved up three points with 2:43 to go on a Burgess triple, but a foul call with the Griffons on offense led to a technical foul on the Pitt State bench, giving MWSU four free throws and a chance to regain the lead.
Jefferson made three of four from the stripe to tie the game up at 79-all with 2:30 to play.
The Gorillas found themselves at a crossroads early in the first quarter, falling in a 12-2 hole in the first three minutes of the contest. How a team responds at that moment is the difference between a blowout loss or fighting back to give yourself a chance to win.
“I think we were a little nervous to start the game,” Lord said. “After that, we were able to settle down and make play after play to get back in it.”
The Pitt State answered with an 8-0 over the next several minutes to capture their first lead of the ball game on a Brugman layup with 1:42 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Pitt State head coach Lane Lord on matching up with Missouri Western: “We don’t matchup up well with them at all. Our heart matches up pretty good. We play with a lot of heart and a lot of passion.”
Pitt State battles Northwest Missouri State Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at John Lance Arena in what is being called the Black Tie Game in honor of the Make A Wish Foundation ceremony after the conclusion of the women’s game.
Lucas Davis is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on twitter at @LDsportswriter.