DANCING ON: Lions mount double-digit comeback to advance into second round

Mar. 10—The Missouri Southern women's basketball team is dancing into the second round of the NCAA Division II tournament after a 75-74 comeback victory over Augustana University in the Central Region opener on Friday afternoon.

They advance to play Pittsburg State on Saturday at 5 p.m., the fourth meeting of these two teams.

"We just have a lot of trust in each other," MSSU sophomore guard Lacy Stokes said in an interview broadcast over the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference network. "It just shows a lot on our team and our heart and our will to win and play for each other."

Things weren't looking good for third-seeded MSSU (28-6) after it trailed the entire third quarter and never got closer than 45-41.

But right before the end of that period, Stokes got involved defensively with a couple of key stops. First, she drew a charge on Augustana's Lauren Sees. The next time on defense, she forced a five-second call as she was tightly defending Sees well beyond the 3-point line near half court.

The Lions didn't score off of either stop, but it kept the deficit at 59-50 to end the quarter.

"It was a big mental stop because we were able to get some stops and because we were struggling to stop them the entire game because they were so good offensively," MSSU head coach Ronnie Ressel said in an interview with the Globe.

The Lions faced a 64-52 hole after the Vikings' Aislinn Duffy converted a layup early in the fourth quarter.

But after a missed shot caromed out to Layne Skiles, the senior lined up a 3-pointer off the offensive rebound and buried it to give her 12 points on her fourth outside shot of the game. Skiles' basket made it 64-55 and the Lions began to battle back.

Stokes tallied 4 straight points, and a little later she combined with an Amaya Johns' triple to score six consecutive for MSSU and make it 68-65 with about four minutes left in the game.

"Amaya's one that plays with so much heart. Like, you could not find another player that loves the game like she does," Stokes said.

Stokes added that her senior teammate really stepped up in a close game and it was needed for the team in her opinion.

The Lions weren't necessarily on fire from outside but they did make good on eight 3-point attempts and three of them in the final stanza.

The final triple of the game came from Kaitlin Hunnicutt from the left wing to make it 70-68 in favor of sixth seed Augustana.

Lauren Sees put the Vikings back up by four with a layup immediately following Hunnicutt's trey.

Then it was time for the defense to do its part for Southern. Following a 1-for-2 trip to the free throw line for Johns, the Lions forced a turnover and Stokes also converted one of two charities to make it 72-70 with 1:05 to go.

The defense wasn't done yet. Another forced turnover gave the Lions possession with less than a minute on the clock. Stokes showed her patience as the leader of the offense and used a screen but hesitated as she dribbled to the left. Once the larger defender showed concern for the 3-pointer, Stokes blew by with the left hand, made a layup and drew the foul.

"The first three quarters we struggled a little bit to defend them," Ressel said. "The kids made some adjustments. We were so worried about their shooters that we weren't doing a good job of helping off on their dribble-penetration."

Coach added that the team's ability to make things difficult for Augustana in the fourth quarter was huge. From denying more interior looks to closing out on shooters better, the Lions really tightened up their defense late. Ressel said he was impressed with Duffy's ability to score around the basket in Friday's contest.

Stokes cashed in on the free shot and MSSU was looking at its first lead since late in the second quarter, thanks to the old-fashioned 3-point play with about 30 seconds left.

Duffy put the Vikings on her back and scored on a quick turnaround in the lane to put her team back on top with 15.3 seconds left.

Ressel called a timeout and drew up a play. The Lions came out and Stokes acted as if she would attack but then left the ball off for Hunnicutt in the left corner. Hunnicutt faked the shot and drove into the lane and was bumped as she attempted a running shot in the paint.

Hunnicutt hadn't attempted a free throw all game. But she's an 86% shooter from the line this year. The redshirt sophomore proved it as she buried both attempts and made it 75-74.

"Stepping up and making two free throws in that situation was huge," Ressel said. "Those are big-time pressure free throws that she did a great job of knocking down."

With 5 seconds on the clock, Duffy caught the ball at the top of the key and tried an entry pass to Jewett but the ball never got there as Layne Skiles was able to jump up and steal it away as the clock ran to zero and the Lions sealed the win.

Stokes finished with 28 points for MSSU, 16 in the second half. Johns added 17, Skiles had 12, and Hunnicutt chipped in 10 more — 8 came in the second half. Stokes led all scorers. Johns earned a double-double with 11 rebounds.

The Lions finished 8 for 25 from outside for 32% and 26 for 72 overall for 36%. The boost for them came with 15 free throws on 20 attempts. While the Vikings were just 9 for 14 on free shots.

Augustana (25-6) shot 1 for 8 from beyond the arc in the second half as part of the MSSU pressure. The team was 5 for 17 (29.4%) on 3-pointers for the entire game.

The Vikings' Michaela Jewett tallied 27 points and poured in 17 of them in the first half. Duffy was the opposite as she dropped 22 and saw 14 come in the second half.