WEST LIBERTY - Coming off a month-long Christmas break and playing its first home game since Nov. 19, the West Liberty University women's basketball team struggled a bit in defeating old rival Wheeling Jesuit University, 58-44, on Wednesday night.
The Hilltoppers were playing shorthanded because of the absence of senior guard Kayla Ayers, the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference leader and ranked fifth nationally with an average of 3.6 3-point field goals per game this season. Ayers sat out the game due to an illness and could miss even some action, according to coach Lynn Ullom.
''Kayla is sidelined with viral infection and it could be five days or two weeks until we get her back," Ullom noted. ''She needs to get some food in her and regain her strength."
West Liberty’s Hillary Southworth (24) drives to the basket at Wheeling Jesuit’s Lucy DeFruscio closes in Wednesday at the ASRC.
Sophomore forward Hillary Southworth and Ayers are the only Hilltoppers to have scored double figures in every game this season, averaging 17.5 and 16.5 ppg., respectively, entering Wednesday's contest. Ayers also is the team leader in rebounds.
''I don't think we showed a lot of rust but we are a little limited right now," Ullom said after West Liberty was held 14 points less than its season scoring average of 72 points per game. ''We knew it wasn't going to be easy because Kayla is our zone shooter. Every practice and every game we are looking trying get her the first look.''
Although West Liberty was 21 of 59 from the floor, including 9 of 25 behind the arc, the Hilltoppers got enough offense from Southworth's 16 points and 12 by senior Jenn Cessna to stave off the young Cardinals.
The key to the victory came when West Liberty (7-4, 4-1 WVC) was able to shut the visitors down underneath the offensive glass during the second half. Wheeling Jesuit (2-8, 0-7) pulled down 14 offensive rebounds in the first half and they kept the game very much in reach.
''I'll give Wheeling credit. They did an incredible job on the offense boards," Ullom said. ''We spent almost the whole halftime talking about blocking out and making it a priority. Give our kids credit because we only allowed them to get three defensive rebounds in the second half.
''Our defense was good enough that they weren't going to score a lot of points either and we knew if we could eliminate their second-chance opportunities, we would be able to ride it out and get the win.''
The outcome might have been a lot closer had the Cardinals been able to hit some shots. Wheeling was just 17 of 65 from the field, including only 3 of 17 in three-point attempts.
''I was disappointed in our shot selection," Cardinals coach Debbie Buff said. ''I think we are a lot better shooting team that that, but we went for the quick hitters too many times instead of being patient. When we had open shots, we didn't knock them down."
West Liberty never trailed and the score was tied on just two occasions. Southworth buried a 3-pointer from the corner to put the Hilltoppers ahead 5-2. After Wheeling Jesuit's Erica Schultz hit 1 of 2 from the foul line, Cessna drained another triple and Bri Kamarac's runner gave West Liberty a 10-3 lead, forcing a Cardinals timeout at the 15:11 mark.
Wheeling closed to within 13-12 after a Lucy DeFruscio baseline drive for an easy basket. The score was tied at 15-15 on Alex Anderson's free throw but West Liberty's Cessna and Erica Hershberger swished back-to-back trifectas putting the Hilltoppers ahead by six. Cessna's third triple of the opening half gave West Liberty a 29-21 cushion at the break.
Although Wheeling Jesuit never got closer than six points the entire second half, Buff's team never quite allowed the game to get out of reach. West Liberty's biggest lead was 14 points at the end.
Emily Robinson, the Cardinals' promising freshman point guard, led WJU's scoring with 12 points. Schultz, another freshman, finished with 11.