No. 21 Lady Owls finally find first-round breakthrough

The William Woods University Lady Owls basketball team is no longer flummoxed by the first round.

Senior forward Rachel Baker tallied seven of her game-high 26 points during a 15-4 run in the final 6 minutes late Wednesday night as No. 21 William Woods bounced No. 9 Biola (Calif.) 77-69 in opening-round play at the NAIA Division I women’s national tournament.

Senior guard Jill Sutton added six points during the pivotal sequence as No. 6 seed William Woods posted its first win in four appearances at the national tournament. The Lady Owls — who at 30-4 have set a school single-season record for victories — are making their third straight trip to the national tournament.

William Woods now moves on to the Sweet 16 and will square off against No. 8 Westminster (Utah) College at 4:30 this afternoon at Oman Arena. Westminster (28-6) — a No. 2 seed — advanced with a 60-56 win over No. 7 seed Rogers State (Okla.) University in first-round play earlier Wednesday.

The Lady Owls trailed 36-35 at halftime, but Sutton started the key run by dropping in a jumper with 6 minutes, 3 seconds left to put William Woods in front to stay at 55-54. The Lady Owls then rattled off seven unanswered points, topped off by a pair of Baker free throws, to extend their lead to 62-54 with 4:23 to play.

After a basket by Biola’s Jessilyn Conicelli, William Woods countered with six more unanswered points to build a double-digit advantage. Sutton converted two free throws to make it 68-56 with 2:06 remaining.

Conicelli — a 6-foot senior forward — scored again to interrupt the Lady Owls’ run, but Sutton knocked down another pair of free throws to give the Lady Owls a 70-58 edge with 1:46 to go.

The Lady Eagles brought on some tense moments for William Woods when they delivered an 11-3 run to pull within four points with under a minute to play. A 3-pointer from junior guard Emily Drews made it 73-69 with :32 left.

However, Sutton and Baker coolly clinched the Lady Owls’ landmark tournament victory by hitting two free throws apiece in the final :29.

Baker — the American Midwest Conference player of the year — finished 8-of-18 from the field, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range, and made 6-of-8 free throws. She also collected a team-high 13 rebounds as William Woods edged Biola 44-42 on the boards.

Sutton followed with 18 points for the Lady Owls, who shot 43 percent (21-of-49) as a team — including 50 percent (9-of-18) from behind the arc — and were able to weather 20 turnovers. Sutton also hit 9-of-10 free throws as William Woods shot 74 percent (26-of-35) from the line.

Senior forward Jestine Gerber supplied 15 points for the Lady Owls and junior guard Sharron Andrews handed out a game-high seven assists.

Conicelli — the two-time Golden State Athletic Conference player of the year — closely mirrored Baker’s performance, ending up with 24 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. No. 3 seed Biola completed its season with a 25-7 record, bowing in the first round for the fifth time in six appearances at the national tournament.

Christina Barclay — a 6-4 senior center — contributed 18 points for the Lady Eagles on Wednesday night, but was limited to only four in the second half. Biola shot just 36 percent (30-of-84) from the field and committed 11 turnovers.

In Westminster’s first-round victory over Rogers State, Brooke Larsen produced 15 points to direct four players in double figures for the Lady Griffins. Michelle Pace was next with 13 points, Nicole Yazzie had 12 and Dani Evans provided 10.

Westminster is making its fifth straight appearance in the national tournament.

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•Notes: No. 11 Columbia College — the AMC’s automatic qualifier after defeating William Woods for the postseason tournament championship — was eliminated in a 76-64 first-round loss to No. 22 Lubbock Christian (Texas) University on Thursday morning. The No. 3 seed Lady Cougars, who defeated the Lady Owls three times this season, finished with a 28-6 record. No. 6 seed Lubbock Christian is now 22-9.

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