Gannon wins defensive battle with California
ERIE – The California University women’s basketball team’s long and winding road through the postseason came to a dead end Monday night.
The roster-depleted Vulcans, who made an unlikely run to the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region final, could not find any detours around Gannon’s aggressive in-your-face defense and stopped one win shy of the runway for San Antonio and the Elite Eight.
Gannon overcame a nine-point deficit and a disastrous 13-point first half to rally and defeat the Vulcans, 50-47, before 1,403 at the Hammermill Center.
The game wasn’t decided until Cal, which trailed by seven points with less than one minute remaining, missed three shots from three-point range in the final 11 seconds, the last a 20-footer by Chelsea McKnight that bounced off the rim as the buzzer sounded.
Gannon (31-4), ranked No. 7 in the nation, advances to play second-ranked Ashland (Ohio) in the Elite Eight March 26. Gannon and Ashland met during the regular season in a tournament in Los Angeles with Ashland winning by 11 points.
Gannon’s home court has been a familiar roadblock for California (22-9). The Vulcans lost here three times this season, have dropped four in a row and 10 of their last 11 at the Hammermill.
“Make a couple more shots, that’s all we needed,” Cal head coach Jess Strom said. “I couldn’t have asked more from our defense. We held them to 13 first-half points. That’s a good team we played. But offense has been our Achilles’ heel all year. We go long spurts without scoring.”
The Vulcans had three such scoring droughts in this game. The Vulcans survived going 6:02 without a point early in the game because Gannon made only four of its first 15 shots. Cal used a 12-0 run to take a 15-9 lead, but then the Vulcans went 6:11 before scoring again and saw their lead dwindle to a single point early in the second half.
A basket off an offensive rebound by Ashley Hines, who came off the bench to score 12 points and grab 10 rebounds, gave Cal a 27-24 advantage with 10:38 remaining in the defensive-oriented game. The Vulcans, however, went into a deep freeze again, going 7:27 without a point.
This time, Gannon, the PSAC West Division champion, took advantage of Cal’s offensive woes. Sparked by regional Most Outstanding Player Nettie Blake, the Golden Knights went on a 13-0 run to forge a 36-27 lead. Blake, a talented center, scored nine consecutive points in the decisive spurt.
“Nettie not only had a great game, she showed what a tough player she is,” Gannon coach Cleve Wright said. “She came through during that big run. She put us on her back for a four-minute stretch.
“We were able to get the ball inside and get some easy looks during that stretch. The whole game, it felt like were on the edge of going on a run.”
Gannon, which made 12 of 16 free throws down the stretch, led 45-36 with 46 seconds to play when Cal started a one final push that almost forced overtime. Irina Kukolj made a three-pointer, Stephanie Michael made consecutive baskets from three-point range, and point guard Katie Seebohm drove for a layup that pulled the Vulcans to within 49-47 with 16 seconds still to play.
“We never gave up,” Strom said. “That comes from all the hard work they put. This is a team that if it’s down 20, it’s doesn’t give up.”
Blake made one of two free throws to make it 50-47, giving one final chance to Cal.
“We certainly made it more exciting at the end than it needed to be,” Wright said. “We had that big run, then Cal showed the heart that it has and came back. I was really impressed with their effort. Some of the shots they made in the final three minutes were phenomenal.”
Unfortunately for the Vulcans, they didn’t make enough shots. Cal was held to 32 percent shooting. Michael, who averaged 24 points in Cal’s first two regional wins, had trouble shaking the sticky defense of Doriyon Glass and was limited to 12 points on 4-for-12 shooting. Six of those points came in the final minute.
“She was physical,” Michael said. “I probably dribbled the ball too much in front of her.”
Glass also led Gannon in scoring with 15 points. Blake had 12 points and 16 rebounds. The Golden Knights shots only 28 percent but hammered Cal on the boards by a 45-37 margin that included 16 offensive rebounds.
“During that key stretch in the second half, rebounding definitely was the difference,” Strom said. “They had three or four second chances and that just killed us.”
Cal tied a season low for points in a first half with 18, but still managed to take a five-point lead into the locker room. Gannon shot only 22 percent, committed 11 turnovers and failed to set an offensive tempo it could live with.
Cal survived a six-minute scoreless stretch during which it fell behind 9-6. Two free throws by Ashley Hines and one by Michael tied the score and sparked a 12-0 Cal run. Fast-break layups by Hines, Chelsea McKnight and Michael made it 15-9, and Michael made a deep three-pointer to give Cal a nine-point advantage with two minutes left in the half.
“We were getting good looks at the basket in the first half. We just needed to concentrate,” Wright said. “We didn’t talk much about offense. We talked about how good we were playing on defense and we needed to continue that in the second half.”
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