Webster stuns Lady Blue Jays for SLIAC postseason crown

There’s no telling when it will all make sense for Westminster women’s basketball coach Tracy Braden.

After a school-record 15 game winning streak was snapped Saturday afternoon, Braden couldn’t even begin to piece together the season her team had just finished.

“It’s going to take me awhile to kind of put this one in perspective,” Braden said. “It might take a couple of days or maybe a week, but it’s all still kind of fresh right now.”

Whether it is next week or two weeks or whenever, the Lady Blue Jays know they will not be playing basketball. As a result of top-seeded Westminster’s 74-58 hom loss to No. 2 Webster University in the finals of the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference postseason tournament, the Lady Gorloks will get the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III national tournament.

Meanwhile, the Lady Blue Jays — ending an extraordinary season at 20-6 — will remain at home wondering what might have been.

One thing that is certain is that Westminster didn’t take Henry Iba Court on Saturday expecting anything less than a victory.

The Lady Blue Jays finished the regular season with a perfect 16-0 mark in the SLIAC. Along the way, they swept the season series against Webster, winning by an average of 23.5 points per contest.

In addition, Westminster — by way of winning the regular-season conference title — hosted the SLIAC postseason tournament in a gymnasium where it had only lost once previously this season.

But more than that, there was a confidence about the Lady Blue Jays. They knew how Webster would come at them and were ready and raring to go.

But the Lady Gorloks (17-10) came out swinging from the opening tip. They assumed the advantage with a pair of free throws by sophomore point guard Maggie Zehner at the 15:48 mark of the first half and led throughout.

While Westminster came out struggling from the field, Webster raced to a 43-32 halftime lead by shooting 54.2 percent from the field.

Much of that came from senior forward Katy Meyer, who scored 19 of her game-high 21 points in the first half.

“I just think we missed some buckets and they made some buckets, and it just kind of — I don’t know — took us by surprise,” Braden said.

The Lady Blue Jays — who led the SLIAC in field-goal shooting (43.5 percent) and 3-point shooting (37.1 percent) during the regular season — went ice cold from both ranges for most of the day. Even with a half-court 3-pointer from junior point guard Rachel Backes as time ran out in the first half, the Lady Blue Jays connected on just 2-of-13 from behind the arc during that span and 7-of-25 for the game.

Two-pointers didn’t come much easier for Westminster, which shot 32.8 percent from inside the arc on the game, leaving Braden aghast.

“I bet we missed 10 layups that were, in a sense, just little bunnies around the basket,” Braden said. “… But the lid was on the basket for us and, unfortunately, it wasn’t for them.”

That frustration was compounded by the fact that Webster left a door open for Westminster in the early stages of the second half. After a Zehner basket increased the Lady Gorloks’ lead to 47-34 with a little more than 17 minutes o play, Webster went cold.

For the next five minutes, the Lady Gorloks didn’t convert a single basket. Unfortunately, the Lady Blue Jays went tit-for-tat with them on misses, mustering up just two free throws from junior guard Heather Letourneau.

“I turned to my coach and said, ‘We can’t do anything about that,’” Braden said. “That’s not an X’s and O’s thing; that’s an execution.”

After that, Webster — which led by as many as 15 points in the game — never let its lead dip below single digits. Right before the Lady Gorloks cut the nets down with little keepsakes to remember the win, Braden and Backes, who led the Lady Blue Jays with 15 points, were both recognized as the SLIAC Coach and Player of the Year, respectively.

Still, Westminster didn’t get the trophy that it set out to win. And after the Lady Blue Jays set school records for wins and consecutive wins, while capturing their first conference championship in the program’s 19-year history, Braden can still find a glimmer of good.

“I wouldn’t trade this year for anything because if you were to tell me that I’d trade you this tournament championship but you weren’t undefeated in conference and you don’t win a conference title, I wouldn’t make that trade,” Braden said. “Because I feel that’s important in the foundation of this program and what we did this year is important, and I believe we’ll be here next year and we’ll be in that championship game, and we’ll be more prepared and wiser in how to handle that stage.”

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