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Lady Ags pull out 2-point win over Hawaii to celebrate seniors’ last game

March 8th, 2010 Posted in Sports

By Dan Fawson

LOGAN—After five straight losses and losing nine of its last 11, the Utah State women’s basketball team welcomed back a long-lost friend Saturday—lady luck.

The Aggies (13-16, 5-11) closed out their regular season in dramatic fashion, winning on senior night for the first time in five years with a 53-51 win over visiting Hawaii. After a back-and-forth battle for much of the second half, the Aggies kept the lead for the final 6:43, holding off a furious comeback effort from the Rainbow Wahine.

Hawaii junior point guard Keisha Kanekoa’s layup with 11 seconds left brought the visitors to within one point at 52-51, and then Aggie guard Tahara Williams went to the free-throw line with nine seconds left and made her first attempt, but the second one rimmed out. Hawaii (10-19, 4-12) collected the rebound and elected not to call a time out, putting the game in Kanekoa’s hands. She penetrated all the way to the basket and had a wide-open look to send the game to overtime, but her layup attempt circled all the way around the rim before falling out and eventually into the hands of Williams. The clock ran out and the Aggies survived.

The Aggies were grateful for the good fortune.

“Karma, maybe,” Aggie head coach Raegen Pebley said of the Aggies’ last-minute fortunes, referencing the number of heartbreaking losses her team has suffered this season.

“I think fate was on our side that time, because [Kanekoa’s shot] could of easily gone in and it would have been overtime,” Williams said, relieved that missed Aggie free throws down the stretch didn’t cost them a much-needed win. The Aggies missed four of their last six attempts from the line, with two misses coming from Williams and the other two from junior Alice Coddington.

“I went up there pretty confident,” Williams said. “I’m pretty confident in my free-throw shooting, because in practice we work on it a lot and I usually hit them. The fourth one I thought was in, and it just rimmed out so slowly, and it was just so heart-breaking. But we got it done at the end.”

A win is always welcome, but this one ends the season on a special note.

“It was good to see us be able to pull out a close one, and it’s nice to do that on a senior night, too,” Pebley said. The Aggies’ last senior night win came in 2005, before the school had joined the Western Athletic Conference.

“We haven’t had many wins on senior night,” Williams said, “so it was good to be one of the first few. To end your career here with a win is always great.”

The Aggies went into halftime with a 4-point lead, 25-21, but Hawaii’s 9-0 run midway through the second half gave the Wahine their own 4-point edge, 39-35, with 9:03 left to play. The Aggies regained the lead, 43-41, on a Coddington layup with 6:43 left to play, and extended the lead to 47-41 on two free throws from freshman Trisha Jo Goddard with 3:57 left. The Rainbow Wahine refused to go quietly, though, cutting the Aggie lead to within three points four times in the final two minutes.

Ultimately, it was defense that sealed the win. The Aggies forced Hawaii into 21 turnovers, and held the Rainbow Wahine under 40 percent shooting from the field.

“I think that’s where we won it,” Pebley said. “We just felt like we could pressure this team into some mistakes. They’re a very big team . . . so instead of immediately going to a zone, we wanted to see if we could pressure them into mistakes

“They’re a motion-oriented team, and if you just sit back and let them read and make lots of those cuts, you’re going to be in trouble.”

While the victory was especially meaningful for departing seniors Williams, center Lydia Whitehead, forward Nicole Johnson, and guard LeeAnn Palo, who suffered through injuries for much of the season, USU received significant contributions from some of its younger players. Freshman center Banna Diop led the Aggies with 11 points and eight rebounds, freshman Devyn Christensen tied for second on the team with eight points, and Goddard, the team’s starting point guard, took a charge from Kanekoa with 22 seconds left, which kept Hawaii from tying the game.

“We had freshman in the game at the end of the game,” Pebley said. “We’re a young, young team out there, and I’m excited about the future of this program.”

Diop, a Senegal native who came to USU by way of a high school in Japan, has led the team in rebounding in nine of the last 11 games, and has been more of an offensive focus for the Aggies as the season has gone along. The freshman credits her teammates, and one departing senior in particular, for her success.

“It’s because they give me good passes,” Diop said. “They help me and talk to me a lot.

“I think I’m going to miss [Nicole Johnson] a lot. She’s been talking to me like, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that.’ The way she’s talking to me in the game . . . it’s very helpful, and I will miss her a lot.”

At 6 foot, 6 inches tall, Diop also displayed some range on her shot, knocking down a three-pointer at the 9:09 mark in the first half.

“I love shooting three’s,” she said, laughing. “If you give me some space, I will take the three.”

The Aggie seniors also had strong final performances. Williams had eight points, including two first-half three’s. Johnson, the team’s starting power forward, had two points and three rebounds, but affected the game most with her strong post defense. Whitehead, a Nibley native, had four points, five rebounds, and three blocked shots.

Pebley praised her seniors’ intelligence as they prepare to graduate. “They each have brought something different” to the team, the coach said, praising Whitehead’s competitiveness, Johnson’s “strong moral compass,” Williams’ love of opportunities, and Palo’s embracing of the student-athlete experience.

Hawaii was led in scoring by senior forward Dita Liepkalne’s 13 points, joining Diop as the only other player in double figures.

With Saturday’s win, the Aggies secured the seventh seed in next week’s WAC tournament, avoiding the unbeaten conference champion Fresno State in the first round.  But Pebley sees second-seeded Louisiana Tech, USU’s first-round opponent, as a very difficult team to beat.  In its two meetings with the Lady Bulldogs this season, USU has been outrebounded by 19 and 20 boards respectively.

“That’ll be the challenge with La. Tech,” Pebley said. “They’ve got the most athletic post duo in our league, two of the best rebounders, actually, in the country, so we’re going to need to do a great job of keeping them off the boards.”

Pebley hopes her senior leaders can combine with the team’s young, emerging talent to help the Aggies make a surprising run in the tournament.

“We’re going to need our seniors to lead us,” she said. “Our freshman, they need to now count themselves as sophomores, and our sophomores need to count themselves as juniors and really just kind of rise to the occasion.

“You need a little bit of naivety to pull an upset in the tournament, but also you need some experience and good game management.”

The Aggies will square off against the Lady Bulldogs Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. in Reno.


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