WHEELING - For nearly 30 minutes Thursday night, Wheeling Jesuit's women's basketball team controlled the tempo, did what it needed to do to stay in charge, and led arch-rival West Liberty.
But it was the final 10 minutes that made the difference as the Hilltoppers, trailing by nine with 11:30 remaining, used a 27-17 game-ending run to record a heart-pounding 68-67 victory against the Cardinals in front of a large and loud crowd at the Alma Grace McDonough Center.
While it was a fine team effort by Coach Lynn Ullom's squad, with six players scoring at least seven points, it was some big-time baskets by former Williamstown all-stater Liz Flowers and the all-around play of freshmen Wheeling Central graduates Emily Bucon and Colleen McCormick that led the way.
"Our two local freshmen have played well all semester," Ullom said. "Sure, as freshmen they make some mental mistakes, but they are so scrappy and it is never about the effort with them."
Down 50-41 midway through the second half, it was an 11-1 spurt that turned things around, capped by the first of three conventional three-point plays from Flowers that made it a 52-51 West Liberty lead at 7:48.
It eventually got to 55-55 before another Flowers three-point play and a hoop by McCormick made it a 60-55 Hilltoppers advantage. Wheeling Jesuit (7-7 overall, 4-6 MEC) cut the deficit to two with three Jasmin Kiley charity tosses, ahead of two a pair throws from WLU's Kailee Howe that pushed the margin to 66-58 with 2:08 showing.
However, it was far from over as a Jaana Motton deuce and four points at the foul line from Taneka Lewis and Kylie Fritzell cut it back to 66-65. Flowers again made it a three-point spread with two from the line at 26 seconds.
The Cardinals missed a shot inside with 12 ticks to go, but the Toppers could not finishing them off, missing a pair from the line. It looked like all was said and done on an air-ball 3-point attempt with three seconds to go, but Breanna Butler stole the inbounds pass, and hit a short shot while falling to the floor with under a second to go. Butler was looking for a foul call that never came.
Coach Debbie Buff's squad took a hard hit with 3:22 to play when Jaila Bryant picked up her fifth foul on a technical, which not only allowed West Liberty (8-8, 5-5) to add a three-point cushion to the lead, but send the Cardinals' leading scorer to the bench with 17 points.
Wheeling Jesuit actually enjoyed as much as a 13-point lead in the first half before settling for a 33-26 upper hand at the break.
"It's tough when you lose your leading scorer for the final three and a half minutes of a close game," Buff said. "But it was just a lot of little things that did us in. We did a great job getting the the rim and staying in front of them in the first half, but the second half we had a hard time keeping them in front of us.
"They also got some big offensive rebounds late and controlled the boards in the second half after we did in the first. We have a young team and need to focus a little more, but we have a good team and I think by cleaning up the details a little we can be very good.
"The effort was outstanding (Thursday), but the result is pretty disappointing."
For Ullom it was a matter of finding a way to stay in the game.
"The main thing was staying a very ugly game long enough to put something together and we made enough plays to do that," Ullom said. "We are one of the leading scoring teams in the nation, but we struggled.
"Once we were able to get it into more of a north-south game that really opened things up for Liz (Flowers) and she stepped up and scored for us. Turnovers have been something that has plagued us all season, but we are a scrappy, under-sized team that is in the top 30 nationally in rebounding, and we didn't do a good job of it in the first half.
"It was going to take making two or three stops and scoring points and we made that happen. We just found a way to gut out an ugly win."
While Flowers finished with a game-high 24, Bucon had 11 and seven rebounds, Kierra Simpson, Kiley and Howe all finished with eight and McCormick added seven points and equaled Bucon for game-high rebounding honors with seven.
Jaana Motton backed Bryant with 16 off the bench while Lewis chipped in with 13 points for the Cardinals.