Lady Blues in Elite company

While everyone else at Washburn was taking off for spring break the Lady Blues were just beginning their work on the road to the Elite Eight.

After beating Angelo State, Central Oklahoma and Emporia State in the NCAA Tournament’s first three rounds, WU is set to make its third Elite Eight appearance since 2003.

The Blues (26-6) dominated their first-round opponent on both sides of the ball, beating ASU (23-9) by a comfortable 25-point margin. WU never trailed in the game and improved its opening round record to 10-3 thanks to a defensive effort that held the Rambelles to 17 of 53 shooting. Senior Corkey Stiger scored a team-high 15 points in the 69-44 blowout.

WU, the No. 2 seed in the South Central Regional, fell behind in the first half against the No. 3-seeded UCO Bronchos (24-8), but was able to draw even at halftime and catch fire in the final 25 minutes to earn a 73-66 win.

“Playing in one of the toughest, if not the toughest, conferences really gets us prepared,” said senior forward Amanda Holmes. “It makes it hard during the season but we’d be weaker if our schedule wasn’t so tough.”

Holmes scored a career-high 27 points against UCO to ensure the Lady Blues’ fourth-straight trip to the regional championship. Stiger added 22 as the two seniors combined for two-thirds of the team’s scoring.

WU’s 23 turnovers and a 15-6 run by the Bronchos to end the game, were the only reasons why the final score was as close as it was. ESU (23-8) may have been seeded No. 4 in the region, but they took care of business to join WU in the regional final.

“People always talk about how hard it is to beat a team three times,” said Holmes. “But we just went into it with the mindset that this is just another game against them, and that we had to win if we wanted to keep advancing in the tournament.”

During the past few seasons, nearly every conference or regional championship has been decided by the winner of a WU-ESU battle. In this case, it was a 73-58 victory that sent the Hornets packing and the Blues to Kearney, Neb., site of the 2008 national championship.

Fatigue can be a huge burden on teams with little tournament experience but the Blues have been in this situation enough times that they know what to expect in crucial March matchups.

“Playing three games in four days like that is demanding both to your body and mentally,” said Holmes. “You have to be able to overcome that, and coach puts us through three- or four-hour practices just to make sure we’re ready when that time comes.”

Although the Blues led for all but 20 seconds of the game the Lady Hornets showed early that they would not be eliminated without a fight. After building an early 19-8 lead WU was unable to score for the next 7:24, allowing ESU to claw back into a 19-17 game.

“From the start, it was a typical Washburn-Emporia State game,” said coach Ron McHenry. “Both teams defend well and play physical. It was good to get that early lead, because we knew Emporia could make a run.”

Stiger scored five straight points to end ESU’s chance of tying the game and got WU back on track, rebuilding the lead to eight points at halftime. The two teams traded runs to open the second half, with WU extending the lead to 15 and ESU immediately responding to cut it back down to five. However, another five straight unanswered points by Stiger left the Hornets down by 10.

“[Stiger] was special tonight,” said McHenry. “She’s hit a lot of big shots for us, and this was just another game where she came through when it mattered.”

ESU still managed to hang around, trailing 57-53 at the 4:20 mark, but two layups by guard Janice Bright and a pair of clutch free throws by Stiger gave the Blues a double-digit lead they would hold onto for the final 2:45.

In a showdown between two seniors who didn’t want their careers to end, Stiger scored 31 to offset ESU forward Michelle Stueve’s 25-point finale.

“I didn’t even know I scored that many,” said Stiger. “The game was moving so fast I wasn’t paying attention to how many I scored.”

Stiger became just the third Lady Blue to join the 1,000 point club in a two-year career and was named MVP of the South Central Regional. Holmes joined Stiger on the all-region team as well as Stueve, who, as Washburn fans know all too well, put up legendary numbers in her four years as a Hornet.

The unanimous MIAA player of the year scored 2,403 points and grabbed 1,040 rebounds in her career and left the game in the final minute to a standing ovation.

“I wouldn’t say I’m glad to see her career end,” said Holmes. “More than anything I’m just glad it’s not mine. She’s such a hard worker and a really great player.”

With one of the nation’s top players out of the way the Blues now turn their attention to some of the country’s best teams. Next up is South Dakota (31-1), who advanced to the Elite Eight with a 61-49 win against Minnesota State in the North Central Regional final. WU will take the court 8:30 p.m. Wednesday with hopes of ending the Coyotes’ 29-game winning streak.

“South Dakota lost one game,” said Holmes. “But ever since then, they’ve been playing an undefeated season. We’re nervous, but a lot of that just comes from the excitement of a big game. I want to win more than anything, and if we play our best I don’t think anyone can stop us.”

USD is ranked No. 3 nationally and will make the jump to Division I following this season, meaning WU will be a rare underdog with a Final Four spot on the line. North Central Regional champions have had success lately in the Elite Eight, but WU has an edge in championship experience and won a national title last time they reached the final three rounds in 2005.

A win against USD would put the Blues in a matchup against either Delta State (32-0), the last undefeated team in the country, or California University of Pennsylvania (27-6). If the Blues advance to the national semifinals they will play on ESPNU, with the chance to move on to their first championship game in three years.

“We’ve slipped up in the last two tournaments,” said Holmes. “But I’ve always thought we could do it. We have the talent, especially this year. We just need to take this one game at a time and play our best to win. We’re good enough to do something not a lot of people get the chance to do.”