Duhawks go dancing

photo by Natalie Droeske

After finishing the regular season strong with three consecutive victories, the Loras women’s basketball team received a bye in the first round of the Iowa Conference tournament play, allowing the Duhawks were able to be well rested and ready for their semifinal matchup against Coe.

Throughout the first half, the women were strong on both ends of the floor. The offense used teamwork and efficient shooting to establish the lead, and the defense forced seven turnovers and prevented leading scorer Aleena Hobbs from making much of a difference. The Coe sophomore averaged 18.1 points per game coming in, but she only managed nine for the game. Loras sophomore Lauren Stanich came off the bench and helped extend the lead with her long range shooting. The Duhawks took a 37-29 advantage into the break.

In the second half, Coe’s offense came to life, but their defense could not do the same. Every time the Kohawks cut into the lead, the Duhawks would answer right back. This back and forth continued into the fourth quarter until Loras began to make mistakes with the ball. They committed five turnovers, which led to six unanswered points by the Kohawks to give them the 66-64 lead.

After falling behind, senior Kaitlin Phillips took the game into her own hands and converted on a three point play with only 48 seconds remaining to give Loras back the lead at 67-66. Coe countered on the next possession to once again jump out in front, which led to a Duhawk timeout. Coach Heinzen put the ball in Phillips’ hands and she did not disappoint, knocking down a step back jumper with 21 seconds left, putting Loras on top 69-68. The Duhawks needed a defensive stop to seal the victory, which they got as Coe missed a last-second layup and they were now moving on to the conference championship game.

The Duhawks then traveled to Decorah to take on the regular season champion Luther College Norse for an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. The women came out hot from the field, with a 5-0 lead on a corner three from senior Megan Jones, which was a theme that continued throughout with the Duhawks converting on seven out of 13 three point attempts. Luther kept it close with their own outside shooting and held a slim lead at halftime, 38-34.

In the second half, Loras continued their shooting display, and used the attention on the guards to get their post players open.

Coach Heinzen knew that this balanced play was the reason the Duhawks were able to jump ahead.

“Our ability to knock down outside jumpers throughout the game was a major part of our success,” Heinzen said. “Without it, guarding the paint becomes a lot easier for them. As we did that and did it at a high level, you could just see the floor open up for driving lanes and post touches, and I thought that was a huge part of the game.”

Junior center Lori Obendorf took advantage of this offensive balance and had a monster game, finishing with 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.

The final quarter saw the Duhawks’ defense step up and shutdown the Norse. Loras outscored Luther 18-8 during the final period and held their leading scorer scoreless. The women were able to put the game away and grow their lead to as much as 16, with five players putting up double figures (Obendorf, Phillips, Jones, and juniors Kat Cabrera and Terese McMahon). Coach Heinzen and the Duhawks were able to celebrate as they captured their second conference title in the last three seasons, finishing off the Norse 75-60.

With the tournament championship, the Duhawks earned their third trip to the NCAA tournament in program history. After a strong regular season and finishing with a 19-8 overall record, Loras seems poised heading into the postseason.

Coach Heinzen believes this confidence has been earned.

“Our team should be confident.  We’ve had a really good last couple of weeks and they’ve put in a lot to get here. Over half our team wasn’t here for the 2014 title though, so this is still a new feeling, and we’ll cherish this one just the same.  For our upperclassmen, the tournament is hopefully a more comfortable feeling the second time around and a business trip.”

Throughout the season, the women were able to lean on a balanced offensive attack to provide them with the timely scoring that has gotten them to this point.

With weapons like Cabrera and Phillips on the outside, and Obendorf down low, the Duhawks have no shortage of options.

“Balance is, and always has been, a huge thing for us,” Heinzen said. “It’s a must to have the clutch/go-to players, but our ability to spread the scoring and share the ball is what makes our offense so efficient. I think we’re tough to scout and prepare for because of that.”

Tipoff is set for 5 p.m. on Friday, March 4 against St. Thomas in River Falls, Wis.

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