PAINESVILLE, Ohio – Cruising at high altitude can cause some unique problems.
Earlier this week, Cal-San Diego and Edinboro, the nation's two highest ranked women's basketball teams, encountered some turbulence. Both lost for the first time this season.
Saturday (Feb. 25) at Lake Erie College, it was the fifth-ranked Ashland University Eagles who experienced a bumpy ride. The Eagles were looking to complete the regular season as the first GLIAC team to navigate the conference schedule without a loss since Northern Michigan in 1996-97.
In front of a Senior Day crowd at the Osborne Center, the Eagles (25-1/19-0) won their 25th consecutive game, 62-53. Ashland is the first team in GLIAC history to go 19-0 within the conference. AU will begin the GLIAC Tournament on Wednesday (Feb. 29) at Kates Gymnasium as the top seed in the tournament field. The Eagles already own GLIAC South Division and GLIAC regular season championships. They are in search of their first GLIAC Tournament championship.
The Eagles struggled early against the determined Storm (16-10/10-9) and its full-court pressure. Sophomore forward Ashley Dorner (Bellville, Ohio/Clear Fork) and sophomore guard Alyssa Miller (Zanesville, Ohio/Tri-Valley) both had two fouls before halftime and spent a good portion of the half watching from the bench. What they saw was an AU team that off the mark offensively for much of the first 20 minutes. The Eagles shot 34.8 percent (8-of-23) in the first half.
The one constant for the Eagles was junior forward Kari Daugherty (Fresno, Ohio/Dayton). Dougherty had her 18th double-double of the season by halftime when she had 15 points and 18 rebounds. She ended the game with a career-high 30 points and a school-record 24 rebounds. Daugherty eclipsed the single-game record of 21 rebounds, set a year ago by Daiva Gerbec (Columbus, Ohio/Bishop Watterson). This was her second 20-rebound game of the year.
"Just a phenomenal performance," gushed AU head coach Sue Ramey. "All year long we've asked her to score and rebound. Today she was our fourth guard on the press break and she made great decisions. This was just a beautiful performance."
At the break, Dougherty had outrebounded LEC by herself, 18-14. Ashland may have had trouble putting the ball in the basket, but the Storm wasn't doing any better. LEC shot 14.8 percent (4-of-27) from the floor in the first half, 1-of-10 from three-point range.
"I think sometimes it easier because I'm down there in the post," said Daugherty of her rebounding prowess. "My teammates do a good job of boxing out and I just go get it. I think a lot of it is when I was struggling shooting in the middle of the year, I really worked on it (rebounding)."
The Eagles had a 10-6 lead with 9:36 remaining in the first half. Finally, in the last four minutes of the half AU began to pull away and at halftime the Eagles were on top, 25-15.
That point total is far below what the Eagles normally have after 20 minutes, but the impressive skill this team has had all year is to stay focused defensively when the offense doesn't flow as usual. The Storm struggled to find open shots and Daugherty did an exceptional job shadowing LEC's multi-talented 6-1 center Stephanie Rogers. Rogers entered the game averaging 16.2 ppg., and 8.2 rpg. Daugherty and the Eagles limited her to eight points and nine rebounds.
The Eagles connected on five of their first seven shots in the second half and with 13:15 left in the game, led, 39-24.
The Storm, which is going to the GLIAC playoffs for the first time in school history, didn't fold. Forward Alyssa Wagers (16 points, 10 rebounds) led a charge that saw LEC get to within nine points, 51-42 with 4:59 left in regulation. AU got a triple from the left wing by Daugherty on the next possession to take a 54-44 lead.
Still, the Storm wouldn't concede. A Rogers bucket with 2:50 left sliced the Ashland lead to 54-48. The score stayed that way until senior guard Jena Stutzman (Berlin, Ohio/Kent State) hit a jumper in the lane with 1:14 to go for a 56-48 lead. The Storm answered with a triple to cut the margin to 56-51 with 1:01 to play.
"It's not like this was a bad team we were facing," noted Ramsey. "They're good and always dangerous because of the way they can shoot the three. I knew we had to play straight-up defense. I think it was a good lesson for us in a close game."
In that final minute AU closed out the game with its free throw shooting. The Eagles, the national leader in free throw percentage (80.9 percent), went 6-for-6 at the line to wrap up the win. The Eagles won despite the fact that the Storm put up 19 more shots (63 to 44) than they did. That was canceled out by the fact that LEC shot 27 percent (17-of-63) from the floor.
"At halftime we talked about lessening the turnovers and hitting our open shots," said Daugherty. "Down the stretch when they made their run, there was no doubt. We said we'll fight through this stretch, we'll hit free throws. I think sometimes you look at us and you think we're inexperienced because we're playing two sophomores. But we're experienced."
This team has now experienced what few have – a perfect run through the GLIAC regular season.
"I told them," said Ramsey, "we finished one race today. That was to go undefeated in the conference. I don't know that this has sunk in yet. It takes a lot of things for this to happen. Again, I give my assistant coaches a lot of credit for their preparation and our players for their execution."
In addition to Daugherty's 30-point effort, AU got 13 points and six boards from Stutzman and 10 points from Dorner.
AU's opponent in the first round of the GLIAC Tournament will be announced later on Saturday.