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Big third quarter propells Raiders into national quarterfinals

For most teams, a four-point halftime deficit is hardly reason to panic, but Southern Oregon is not most teams and Friday’s game was no ordinary contest.

It was the second round of the NAIA Division II women’s basketball national tournament, and the No. 3-ranked Raiders stumbled into the locker room down 42-38 to No. 15 Briar Cliff, SOU’s first halftime deficit since Nov. 1.

“We basically just challenged their toughness,” SOU head coach Alex Carlson said of his halftime speech. “We felt that Briar Cliff was just being a little tougher than us inside and scrapping out some rebounds and kind of doing those small things, and we challenged this group. And I think you really saw what determination, what heart they have.”

Quite a bit, it turns out.

Showing grit and toughness that was rarely required during its long string of 30-point blowouts, Southern Oregon outscored Briar Cliff 26-11 in the third quarter then relied on some stalwart team defense and clutch shooting from Autumn Durand and Ashley Claussen to pull out an 81-70 victory at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

The comeback win advances the Raiders (31-1) to the national quarterfinals for the first time since 1997. They’ll play 11th-ranked Tabor of Kansas today for a berth in the Final Four, which is streamed live online by ESPN3. Tabor eliminated the Raiders in a hard-fought second-round contest last season, and Carlson said his team is anxious to get another crack at the Bluejays, who beat Asbury on Friday 80-73 in overtime.

“It’s pretty nice for me,” Carlson said. “Obviously you don’t have to motivate your team very much when you’re at the national tournament, but the fact that this is the team that ended our season last year, our girls are extremely motivated. This is a team they wanted to play, so it’s pretty exciting to get the opportunity to play the team that knocked you out to go to the Final Four.”

They earned that opportunity the hard way on Friday. Chasing a Briar Cliff team that also loves to push the pace, the Raiders looked out of sorts while committing 12 turnovers and missing 8 of 11 free throws in the opening half, but they reclaimed control of the game for good in the opening minutes of the third quarter.

SOU scored on its first three possessions of the second half, a momentum shift that snowballed into a 16-5 run capped by a Claussen 3 that gave the Raiders a 54-47 lead only four minutes into the third. Claussen, who led the Raiders with 22 points and five assists, drained another 3 to stretch SOU’s lead to nine points, 60-51, with 1:58 to go in the third.

Briar Cliff (23-10) was looking to cut into an eight-point lead late in the quarter when a steal and tap-ahead by SOU senior Kristin Smeaton led to fastbreak by Demi Sahlinger, who threw up a desperation 30-footer at the horn that banked in for a 65-54 Raider lead.

Smeaton’s hustle, Carlson said, was the key.

“We talked about that a lot in the week leading up to the tournament,” he said. “There’s going to be a play here and there that’s going to be a hustle play that changes a game. Kristin Smeaton is someone who hadn’t played much before this year and as a senior she just outworked that girl and got her hand on the ball and gave us another opportunity. And a lot of people say ‘lucky shot’ and stuff like that … but just having that opportunity doesn’t happen if Kristin Smeaton doesn’t outwork that girl.”

Briar Cliff scored eight straight to cut SOU’s lead to three points, 65-62, with 6:45 to go, but the Raiders responded. Durand, who had 16 points and eight rebounds, finally ended SOU’s drought by nailing a 3 with 5:13 left to get the lead back to six, and she scored again two minutes later to put the Raiders up 70-64.

Jessi Corrick scored inside for Briar Cliff to cut SOU’s lead to four again, but Claussen hit a 3 at the other end, and with 2:45 to go Durand’s third basket of the quarter gave the Raiders a 75-68 lead.

Kaylee Blake and Morgan Hansen scored 17 points apiece to lead the Chargers.

The Raiders survived a foul-plagued game by starting forward Carly Meister, who had eight points and three rebounds before fouling out in only 15 minutes of action.

Carlson said the Raiders were overjoyed with the victory in the locker room after the game.

“We were on cloud nine, that’s the only way I can really explain it,” he said. “We have a good contingent of parents and fans, our athletic director, our president’s out here. And everybody’s really, really excited right now. So we’re about to grab some dinner, but once we get back from dinner we’re going to get locked in on getting prepared for tomorrow’s game.

“This is part of the tournament. We’re on cloud nine, but now we gotta move forward and get prepared for tomorrow because I think we have a great opportunity to get a win and get to the Final Four.”