Gulf Coast overcomes slow start with late surge to reach title game with 80-66 win over Salt Lake
LUBBOCK, Texas – Friday’s semifinal in the NJCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship likely couldn’t have started any worse for defending champion Gulf Coast State.
The Lady Commodores misfired on 11 of their first 13 shots and quickly found themselves in a hole against Salt Lake Community College. But Gulf Coast proved true the time-tested adage of sports – it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
And the Lady Commodores finished strong.
Taylor Emery scored eight of her game-high 22 points during a 17-6 run over the final six minutes, and Gulf Coast booked a spot in the championship game for the second straight year with an 80-66 win over the Bruins at the Rip Griffin Center.
“We got off to a bad start and just couldn’t find that player that could get comfortable. We couldn’t feed it inside, we couldn’t hit the little bunnies. We couldn’t find anybody to get hot from the outside,” Gulf Coast head coach Ronnie Scovel said. “I was kind of impressed that as much as we struggled finding somebody to go to that we were still ahead by one at the half and tied at the end of the first quarter. We just kept saying we’re not playing well but we’re winning, so let’s hang in there.”
The ending put the Lady Commodores (33-2) one game closer to the school’s second straight and fifth national crown. They’ll have to go through either Shelton State College or a potential rematch with Trinity Valley Community College to get there.
Maria Castro added 15 points, none bigger than her third 3-pointer of the game that gave the Lady Commodores their biggest lead of the game at 70-60 with 2:49 to play. It was even more crucial considering both starting forward Jhileya Dunlap and point guard Ty Purifoy were on the bench nursing four fouls.
Emery then added her eight-point outburst in the game’s final 1:39 to seal the win, allowing the Lady Commodores to breathe a sigh of relief.
“I felt like we were overlooking this game,” said reserve forward LaSonja Edwards. “We were looking forward to the championship game instead of taking it one game at a time. We just had to keep going whether it was good or bad.”
Castro finished with 15 points for Gulf Coast followed by 14 off the bench for Shayla Bennett an 11 from Dunlap. Castro and Dunlap also combined for 16 rebounds.
After getting off to such a good start, the Bruins (30-4) held off Gulf Coast State as long as they could and were still within striking distance at 63-60 with 5:33 to play after Rian Rawlings drained a pair of free throws resulting from Purifoy’s fourth foul.
But the Bruins went cold from the floor, hitting just four buckets in the final quarter and just one in the game’s final six minutes, and that one came on a Sica Cuzic 3-pointer with 10 seconds to play, well after the outcome of the game had already been decided.
Cuzic led the Bruins with 20 points. Tia Hay added 14 points while Annie Brady chipped in 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Salt Lake came out the aggressor while Gulf Coast struggled shooting the basketball, something that had not been a problem in its two previous tournament games. The Lady Commodores hit on just two of their first 13 shots from the floor, and the Bruins took advantage by going inside for its first three baskets and a Tia Hay 3-pointer for a 9-2 lead.
But Gulf Coast recovered in time to tie the score at 14 at the end of the first period, using a 10-3 run to tie the game late. The Lady Commodores took their first lead at 18-16 early in the second on a Shayla Bennett short jumper, but Cuzic answered with a 3-pointer for Salt Lake, and from there the lead changed hands 11 times the rest of the period.
Gulf Coast appeared to gain its footing when Emery hit a short jumper in the lane to put the Lady Commodores up 29-26 with 4:13 left in the first half but the Bruins came right back with six straight points, four of which came from Brady, who along with Cuzic had 12 in the first half., to take a 32-29 lead with 3:05 to play.
Cuzic added her second trey less than a minute later to give Salt Lake its largest lead of the game at 35-31, but an Edwards layup and 3-poiner from Castro put Gulf Coast back in front at 36-35, and the teams traded baskets from there as the Lady Commodores led 40-39 at the intermission.
Hay finished with 11 first-half points for the Bruins, who shot 53 percent (17 of 32) in the first half, while Emery led Gulf Coast with 10 points. After starting slow, the Lady Commodores hit on 13 of their last 23 shots and forced eight Salt Lake turnovers.