By BRAD KEITH
ALLEN (March 3, 2017) — Tarleton State held leads deep in the second half of each regular season meeting with Texas A&M-Commerce, only to lose both times.
The fifth-seeded TexAnns (14-13) flipped the script and closed the deal in the opening round of the Lone Star Conference Championship Friday evening with a season-prolonging 55-49 win over fourth-seeded TAMUC (20-9) at Allen Event Center.
Tarleton, which would only advance to the NCAA Division II Championship by winning the conference tournament, meets Texas A&M-Kingsville at 6 p.m. Saturday. A&M-Kingsville, the No. 8 seed, upset top-seeded Eastern New Mexico in overtime Thursday.
Tarleton grabbed a 46-41 lead on a mid-range jumper by Bailey Wipff, saw the margin trimmed to two on a 3-pointer by Krystal Pickron, then grew it to 50-46 on a step-back 17-foot baseline jumper by Tiara Tatum with 52 seconds left.
The Lions crept right back within two on a pair of Brianna Wise free throws following a touch foul with 44 seconds remaining, and Tarleton took a timeout. Kylie Collins was fouled dribbling near the half-court line, and the freshman knocked down both and it was 52-48 before Jenna Price hit one of two foul shots at the other end with 31 ticks left.
Tarleton called timeout again, and Collins was fouled again, this time with 21 seconds left. True to form, the freshman knocked the first one down dead center before rattling in the second for a 54-49 lead. Wipff then stole the ball from TAMUC and was fouled with 7.5 seconds left.
The senior, who left in the first half after hitting her head on the court midway through the first quarter but returned to play basically all of the second half, hit the back end of her pair for a six-point lead that sent the TexAnns moving on.
“We knew it was going to be a battle. They’re just tough; they’re physical, they crash the boards and do so many good things,” said third-year Tarleton head coach Misty Wilson. “We prepared for a battle and that’s what it was.”
TAMUC scored the first six points of the final stanza for a 38-36 lead before Travanti Downes was fouled going up and hit both to tie the game with 7:08 remaining. Ikpeaku Iwobi then hit a pair to put Tarleton up two, and the lead grew to five before the 3-ball from Pickron helped TAMUC stay in it until the final seconds.
Mackenzie Hailey scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, her 13th double-double of the season. Wipff scored 10, seven of them after returning in the second half, and Downes had all 10 bench points for the TexAnns.
Tarleton finished the third quarter on an 8-0 run featuring six points and a blocked shot by Downes, who broke away for layup to make it 36-32 entering the fourth.
“I like coming off the bench. I think I’m like the spark,” said Downes. “I’m always trying to get everybody pumped up, so when I come off the bench, I’m like, ‘Come on, let’s get going, it’s not over.'”
Wilson agreed with the senior from Kennedale.
“She’s a spark and she gives us a different look,” Wilson said. “(Iwobi) is physical down there and (Downes) is finesse, so it’s a different look and it’s great having her come off the bench. I feel like she’s one of the best bench players in the conference.”
The TexAnns made a switch from man to zone in the second half, and TAMUC shot just 29.6 percent.
“I was very stubborn the first two times we played them,” Wilson explained. “They’re a tough team to guard for 40 minutes in man, especially with the matchup and size advantages they have, so I just wanted to kind of keep them off balance a little bit and switch defenses up. I just wasn’t stubborn this time.”
Tarleton improved to 10-13 all-time in the LSC tournament in their first appearance to be seeded outside the top four. The TexAnns lost to West Texas A&M in the semifinals last year, and last reached the final and won the event in 2013. TAMUC, who last won the conference tournament in 2007, are ranked eighth and may now see their bubble burst in the South Central Region.
Tarleton was just 2-14 from the floor in the opening quarter, but managed to pull the lid off the rim in the second, gong 7-16. The TexAnns closed the second quarter on a 14-4 run to trail just 22-21 at intermission after the Lions dominated the opening quarter.
“Nothing (changed) really, balls just went in,” said Wilson. “When we were struggling and down (11) points, we were getting good shots. They were shots that (Downes) always takes and that (Iwobi) and (Hailey) always take. I thought if we would continue to get the ball inside and continue to get those shots that maybe we would be successful.”
The TexAnn run began with four points from Iwobi then five from Hailey, including a 3 that cut it to 18-16.
“At the beginning my shots weren’t falling, and when that one went in it got my momentum going,” said Hailey. “It felt great to come out after the two losses we had (to TAMUC) and get our momentum and hype there, like not the third time. It wasn’t going to happen.”
The TexAnns eventually cut it to one on a bucket by Tatum and again on a basket by Hailey to complete the first-half scoring.
Texas A&M-Commerce scored the final seven of the first to lead 16-5, and was up 18-7 before the TexAnns’ rally. The Lions were on top 9-2 before Wipff hit a triple for Tarleton. But moments later she crashed to the floor playing defense and was out the rest of the first half.
“She’s good; she hit her head pretty hard on the floor and she’s got a headache,” said Wilson. “In the conference tournament last year the same thing happened, but she’s good. She’s a tough kid and she doesn’t like sitting out.”
TAMUC scored all the remaining points in the quarter on a pair of layups by Gay and a 3-ball from Riley. Tarleton missed its final five shot attempts of the period.
Riley led the Lions in the first half with seven, while Iwobi and Hailey each had that many at intermission for Tarleton.