From SFA Athletics
On a night when its mettle was sure to be tested, the Stephen F. Austin women's basketball team rose to the occasion, playing one of its best all around games of the season in a 66-55 win at home on Wednesday night. The victory improved SFA's record to 14-3 on the season and 6-0 in SLC, and coupled with a Central Arkansas loss on the road at UNO, moved SFA into sole possession of first place in the Southland Conference.
"I'm really proud of our group, I thought defensively we played really hard tonight," said SFA head coach Mark Kellogg. "I thought we were all over the place, we were locked in, challenging shots and speeding them up to make them uncomfortable. Offensively, we never really got in a great flow, there were moments where I thought we did really good, and we finally won a third quarter, which gave us a cushion that we probably needed going into the fourth, and then closed it out, didn't relax too much. Proud of our group, there's still a lot of work to do, its one win in the big picture, but I like where we're at."
The stage was set for Wednesday night, as ACU and SFA formed the lion's share of a three-way tie atop the Southland Conference standings with undefeated records in conference play, and each riding a seven-game win streak into the contest. Unfazed by the tough competition, SFA turned in a dominant defensive performance against a dangerous offense in Abilene Christian, thanks to strong individual performances from several Ladyjacks. Stevi Parker led the way with a double-double effort of 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Marissa Banfield had the best all-around game of her young career, with 14 points on 4-8 shooting from the field (3-6 3-Pt.).
"Marissa was phenomenal tonight in a game where we needed her," continued Kellogg. "Taylor Jackson had two quick fouls, she got a third and at that point Marissa was out there making shots and doing a great job for us, and we needed her. Taylor Jackson will have her night again, but in a night where we needed the freshman to step up she was pretty dang good."
A 13-1 third-quarter run with the 'Jacks up 35-34 opened up the lead the 'Jacks would need to take down the Wildcats. Even with a late ACU effort to trim the lead to six with 1:31 left to play in the contest, the 'Jacks would not relinquish the lead after seizing it in the third quarter run, and finished off their sixth SLC victory in relative comfort, going 8-8 from the foul line in the final minute to put the game on ice.
In the early going, the Wildcats flexed the strengths of their lineup, with lengthy, athletic guard play causing early havoc for SFA. 5'10" guard Sara Williamson, one of ACU's "Big 3" with Dominique Golightly and Breanna Wright, connected on her first three baskets to gouge SFA early. After falling behind 8-2 in the early going, it was on SFA to rely on one of its biggest strengths this season and earn trips to the free throw line. The Ladyjacks made nine trips to the free throw line in the first quarter, which helped keep the margin close in the midst of seven early turnovers and 2-8 shooting from the floor. At the end of the first stanza, SFA trailed ACU 16-13.
Responding to a slow start to the contest, SFA started to get a few things going in the second quarter, outscoring ACU 16-14 in the frame as six different Ladyjacks chipped in points in the quarter. ACU, meanwhile, relied heavily on forward Sierra Allen, who had the hot hand in the quarter with a 3-3 effort from the field (2-2 3-Pt.) and notched ten points in the frame. After Allen sank a jumper and a pair of free throws late in the quarter, Hayes gave the 'Jacks a boost heading into the halftime break by rebounding her own miss and laying it up and in as time expired to cut the deficit to one, 30-29.
Trailing by one point at halftime, SFA came out firing on all cylinders in a decisive third quarter, outscoring the Wildcats 19-7 thanks to a resurgent offensive effort paced by suffocating defense. After opening the quarter with traded buckets for the first four minutes of play, SFA received back-to-back-back baskets by Parker to open up a run, which continued with seven consecutive points from Banfield, including two treys. By the time the run ended with a pair of ACU free throws with 1:19 left to play, the 'Jacks had turned a 35-34 lead into a 48-35 lead and outscored the Wildcats 13-1. Hayes was instrumental in the third quarter turnaround, hauling down four offensive boards and helping SFA to accumulate second chance points. The junior guard struggled from the field in the victory, but found other ways to contribute, and ended with eight points, seven boards (six offensive), three assists and four steals.
If one could draw up an ideal way to start a pivotal quarter, then SFA had the blueprint, as Lovisa Brunnberg's trifecta to start the frame pushed SFA's lead out to 51-37. The hot-shooting Swede sank three treys in total for the 'Jacks in the contest, finishing with nine points off the bench in 15 minutes played. The good news didn't stop there for the Ladyjacks, though, as a pair of Parker foul shots with 4:27 left to play opened up a game-high 17 point lead at 58-41. Up by plenty and perhaps to keen to lay off the pressure, the 'Jacks allowed ACU to string together an 11-0 run in the final minutes, and a layup by backup center Lexi Kirgan cut the lead to just six, 58-52, with 1:31 left to play.
From there, however, SFA's defense held firm, and the Wildcats helped the SFA cause by missing two layups down the stretch and making their case more dire. That forced ACU to put one of the top five foul-shooting teams in the country at the line, and SFA was zeroed in on all eight free throw attempts to ice the contest.
When it rains it pours, and Wednesday's result got that much sweeter with news of Central Arkansas' stunning defeat at New Orleans, which moves SFA into sole possession of the Southland Conference lead. Not lost in the moment was the extension of SFA's season-long win streak, which now sits at eight games.
ACU's high-powered offense was held completely in check by a locked in defensive effort from SFA. The Big Three of the Wildcats finished just 6-33 from the field, and only Williamson finished in double digits, with 10. Overall, the Wildcats shot just 18-54 (33.3 percent) from the field and 6-25 (24.0 percent) from beyond the arc, while also committing 19 turnovers which led to 21 SFA points.
"I thought we played them pretty good defensively," explained Kellogg. "Now they had some open looks that I know they'd love to have back, but I thought overall they were sped up, shooting it a bit quicker, and our rotations were pretty good and I think we had a majority of them contest."
SFA held the advantage in bench scoring (27-11), and eked out a small advantage in points in the paint as well (24-16).
Next up for SFA is an equally important home tilt with UCA next Wednesday at William R. Johnson Coliseum, Tip-off for that game is set for 7:00 p.m., and has significant implications in the league standings.
Moody Magic, a term coined by the Abilene Christian faithful to describe a supposed mystical aura around Moody Coliseum that gives the Wildcats a winning edge, is something the Stephen F. Austin men's basketball team fell victim to a season ago.
Wednesday night, the 'Jacks cast a spell of their own - one of the defensive variety - to make sure their intrastate rivals wouldn't obtain a second-straight win in the series.
Behind a game-high 23 points from sophomore Kevon Harris as well as a 26-of–36 performance at the free throw stripe, the 'Jacks erased a 10-point halftime deficit and claimed a 76-66 triumph over Abilene Christian Wednesday night.
Harris' 23 points were the exact same number of points Abilene Christian netted in the final half, too. After shooting an impressive 61.9-percent (13-of-21) through the first frame, the Wildcats were utterly shot down by the 'Jacks' renewed defensive effort and sputtered along at a 27.3-percent (6-of-22) efficiency rate in that span.
That misfortune on offense never seeped over to the 'Jacks' side of the court. The visitors knocked down 44-percent (11-of-25) of their second-half shots and thrived at the foul stripe, too, by going 20-of-25 (80-percent) from that distance during the frame. In addition to Harris, Leon Gilmore III and Ivan Canete also enjoyed double-digit scoring efforts in the win. The former posted 16 points and went 6-of-10 from the foul line while the latter chipped in on 13 on 4-of-12 shooting from the field and a 5-of-5 showing from the free throw stripe.
It was on the strength of Harris' offense in which the 'Jacks built up an early lead. The sophomore scored or assisted on 15 of SFA's first 27 points of the game and three-point plays by Canete and Gilmore III helped SFA increase its lead to 27-15 with 10:48 to go in the frame.
Seemingly in control of things, the 'Jacks misplaced that control in a big way through the remainder of the half. During the final 10:32 of the stanza, the Wildcats took off on a 28-6 run helmed almost entirely by Tevin Foster. The 'Jacks' only two field goals came on layups from Canete and Holyfield while Foster pumped in 14 of his 16 first-half points including all three of his long-range hits through the final portion of the frame.
Gilmore III converted one of his two free throw tries to end the frame, cutting the Wildcats' lead to 43-33 at the break but the damage had already been done by an ACU squad which shot .619/.600/.733 in the opening 20 minutes of action.
Aside from Harris, who amassed 13 on 5-of-7 shooting prior to the blare of the halftime horn, no other SFA player scored more than seven. Additionally, the remainder of the 'Jacks converted only seven of their 27 tries from the field - a success rate of just 25.9-percent.
The 'Jacks' comeback bid began almost immediately once the second half started as Harris went to the line and converted a pair of shots just 33 seconds into the frame. Those free throw makes signaled the start of a 25-9 SFA run that spanned the first 11:12 of the second half and turned a 10-point deficit into a six-point lead for the visitors.
Through that stretch, Abilene Christian hit only two field goals - a pair of wide-open layups by B.J. Maxwell 25 seconds apart - and eight of the 'Jacks' points came from the foul line. The remainder of the points came from field goal makes by Ty Charles, Canete, Gilmore III and Harris.
Offensively, it was Gilmore III and Harris who shouldered most of the load through the second half, putting in 10 points apiece. TJ Holyfield, however, handed SFA the lead for good by swishing two free throws at the 10:28 mark of the frame which made matters 53-52 in favor of the visitors.
Shannon Bogues effectively ended the game by driving baseline and hammering down a two-handed baseline dunk with 2:39 left. That jam pushed the 'Jacks' edge to 12, 73-61, and helped SFA put things on cruise control the rest of the way.
Tevin Foster was held to just four points in the second half to finish with 20 for Abilene Christian. Jaren Lewis and Payten Ricks added 13 and 11 respectively but that trio also combined for 12 of the Wildcats' 22 turnovers in the game.
Once the horn sounded inside Moody Coliseum, it signaled the beginning of a one-week break between games for the 'Jacks. SFA's next tilt, however, is another long road trip in which the team heads to Conway, Ark., to do battle with Central Arkansas and prolific scoring machine Jordan Howard at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 24.