Raiders overcome off night for playoff win
ASHLAND — On a night when very little was falling for the Southern Oregon women's basketball team, the Raiders had to find another way to keep their season going Friday night.
It took a while, but the 18th-ranked Raiders discovered that a solid defense can make up for anything that ails you.
Using a ballhawking, full-court press, SOU turned a 10-point, second-half deficit into a 65-58 victory over Cascade College in front of an energetic crowd of 400 at McNeal Pavilion.
"Our crowd really helped us out at the end," said SOU senior Chelsey Muri, whose team improved to 15-0 at home. "They kept us going and gave us a big boost when we really needed it."
With the victory, the second-seeded Raiders earned a home date with College of Idaho at 7:30 p.m. on Monday in the Cascade Conference Tournament championship. The winner advances to the NAIA Division II Championships in Sioux City, Iowa.
Southern Oregon didn't look like a safe bet to even be in Monday's championship after Cascade managed a 51-41 lead with 12 minutes to go, but the Raiders refused to give in even though so little was going right for them.
"It was a good learning experience," said SOU sophomore Jackie Speer of Friday's nail-biter. "Earlier in the season, we wouldn't have won this game, but we've matured a lot this season. We just knew we had to do whatever it took to get it done."
That meant SOU had to keep plugging away despite shooting only 24 percent from the field in the second half (8-for-34) and 33 percent for the game (19-for-58).
That meant the 20 turnovers committed by the Raiders had to be pushed out of their mind.
That also meant that, when push came to shove in an already physical contest, SOU had to step up and be accountable.
Speer was one of the leading figures.
The 6-foot-1 forward had one of those nights from the field every player laments, going 3-for-10 with four turnovers and not much to smile about on offense. Undaunted, she picked up her play on the defensive end and was a force on the boards to keep Cascade from getting multiple shots at the basket.
Speer finished with 11 defensive rebounds and 13 overall boards and was instrumental in allowing the visiting Thunderbirds only one-shot efforts over the final three minutes.
"We got the stops we needed toward the end of the game and really gave them only one shot on the other end," said SOU coach Lynn Kennedy, whose team equaled the best record in school history (28-4 in 1997-98) on Friday. "That was really big for us."
SOU had used a 15-3 run over a five-minute span to re-claim the lead at 56-54 with 6:55 to play, then fed off the energy of a suddenly raucous crowd down the stretch to fend off the scrappy Thunderbirds (15-17).
Rhiannon Dickison's 3-pointer off the backboard drew an innocent shrug from the junior but brought the crowd to full throat as SOU gained its first advantage since the first minute of the second half.
Speer added a rebound basket moments later to make it 58-54, then the teams traded baskets and missed opportunities over the next two minutes.
Down 60-58 with 30 seconds to go, Cascade drew up a play for Phieban Mulatu to take the ball to the basket, but the Raiders countered with solid defense, and Speer swooped in for the crucial rebound.
Speer was fouled with 17.8 seconds to play and, despite being 0-for-2 from the foul line to that point, she calmly drained both ends of a one-and-one to give SOU breathing room at 62-58.
"I knew I kinda had to redeem myself because I felt like I was kinda letting the team down," said Speer. "I just had one of those nights from the very beginning, but my teammates were backing me up. I knew I had to get up there and get those for them."
Ashley Baker then stepped in to take a charge on Cascade's next possession, and the Raiders tacked on a free throw by Muri and two free throws by Emily Brookins to seal the hard-fought victory.
Muri led the Raiders with 15 points, offsetting a 3-for-15 night from the field by going 9-for-11 at the foul line. The senior guard also had six steals and five assists.
"It's not about me," said Muri. "It's a team game, so if I'm not hitting, I've got to get the ball to people who are."
On this night, however, few players were able to find the mark. Dickison added 13 points but was 4-for-11 from the field, while Speer had eight points.
"We were getting good shots," said Kennedy. "It was just one of those games where it wasn't falling. But we did have some people step up and hit shots at key times."
Cascade, which upset top-seeded Eastern Oregon on Tuesday, didn't fare much better. The Thunderbirds made only 27 percent of their shots in the second half (8-for-30) and 35 percent overall for the game (22-for-63).
Many of those missed shots, however, were the prime result of being out of rhythm thanks to SOU's pressure defense. The Raiders forced 24 turnovers to complement 15 steals.
Raquel Morin had 19 points and nine rebounds and Robin Swain added 18 points to lead the Thunderbirds.
"Their defense is what made the difference," said Cascade coach Matt Murphy. "They picked up their defense significantly in the second half, and we struggled fundamentally a little bit."
Speer said her team will concentrate on the positives gained on the defensive end and not the negatives on offense as the Raiders prepare for third-seeded College of Idaho on Monday.
"That's going to be a huge game," she said. "We always play good against them, so I think we'll be motivated to come out for the championship game. We need it to get to Sioux City, so we'll be ready."
In two meetings this season with College of Idaho, SOU won 78-73 on Dec. 1 and 84-63 on Feb. 1. The Raiders will be seeking their first trip to the national tournament since 2003.
Swain 6-12 3-4 18, Morin 7-17 2-3 19, Mulatu 2-12 1-2 5, Aranui 4-11 2-4 10, Russell 1-4 0-0 2, Clark 0-3 0-0 0, Brito 0-1 0-0 0, Layton 2-3 0-0 4. Totals: 22-63 8-13 58.
SOUTHERN OREGON (28-4)
Muri 3-15 9-11 15, Brookins 1-3 3-4 6, Cooper 1-4 1-1 3, Dickison 4-11 2-2 13, Speer 3-10 2-4 8, Smith 0-1 0-0 0, Wood 2-2 0-0 6, Scott 3-7 0-1 7, Baker 2-4 3-6 7, Scheffler 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 19-58 20-29 65.
Halftime — Southern Oregon 37, Cascade 35. 3-point goals — Cascade 6-20 (Swain 3-6, Morin 3-10, Mulatu 0-1, Russell 0-1, Clark 0-1, Brito 0-1), Southern Oregon 7-24 (Dickison 3-8, Wood 2-2, Brookins 1-3, Scott 1-4, Speer 0-1, Baker 0-1, Scheffler 0-1). Rebounds — Cascade 40 (Aranui 16), Southern Oregon 48 (Speer 13). Assists — Cascade 13 (Mulatu, Aranui 3), Southern Oregon 12 (Muri 5). Personal fouls — Cascade 22, Southern Oregon 15. A — 400.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org