(Western receives its Summit League Championship Trophy. Photo by Dave Eggen/Inertia)
Western Illinois Women's Basketball continued their improbable late season run on Tuesday afternoon, defeating IUPUI 77-69 in overtime to win the Summit League Title and claim the league's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. This will be the team's first trip to the tournament since 1995.
The Leathernecks found themselves down three points with 2.2 seconds remaining, but junior guard Taylor Hanneman hit the game tying shot, nailing a long 3 at the buzzer to extend the game into overtime. Hanneman, who finished the game with 12 points in 15 minutes, had played sparingly up to that point, but had her number called when her team needed results the most.
"The fact that my teammates had enough confidence in me, the fact that me coaches had enough confidence in me, whenever I let it go I had confidence that it would go in," Hanneman said.
After that shot the Leathernecks closed things out handidly in overtime, outscoring the Jags 13-5 in those additional five minutes. Western opened up overtime on a 9-0 run and closed out the game to win the conference crown.
Junior point guard Emily Clemens led the Leathernecks yet again, scoring 20 points along with 9 assists and 5 steals, earning a well deserved tournament MVP distinction. With her 9 dimes, Clemens has set a new Summit League single season assists mark with 234, and has also moved to second place on the program's all-time assists list, passing Michelle Maher.
(Emily Clemens put up a 20 point, 9 assist, 5 steal statline Tuesday. Photo by Dave Eggen/Inertia)
Teammates Morgan Blumer (18 points), Taylor Higginbotham (15 points), and Hanneman all reached double figures as well. Blumer was also named to the All Tournament Team, along with Clemens. The team hung with IUPUI in large part due to its stingy defense, forcing a whopping 25 turnovers, while only giving the ball away 12 times themselves.
The game was back and forth throughout, with the pendulum swaying the Leathernecks way for a majority of the contest. There were 8 ties and 11 lead changes, but WIU maintained a lead in this one by nearly triple the amount of time as IUPUI. Even with that being the case, it was Western Illinois who found itself needing a miraculous play at the end to keep its title hopes alive.
"I can't imagine so much thinking you have something, losing it, then getting it back," said WIU Head Coach JD Gravina. "With the way this team has believed, especially during this 11 game winning streak, it almost had a little bit of a fate destiny type of feel."
Western was unable to close things out up 4 with 2:29 remaining. The team went 2-6 from the foul line during that stretch, something uncharacteristic of a team that strokes it at a 77% clip from the stripe. This is something that came into play yesterday against Omaha though, as the Mavs were in position to tie or take the lead down 2 on the final posession after WIU went 1-4 on free throws late.
A wild bank shot three pulled the Jags to within 1 at 61-60 with 11 seconds remaining. Clemens then was intentionally fouled, but could not cash in on either of her free throws. From there, Jags guard Holly Hoopingarner drew a foul, and with Western over the limit sank both freebies. This gave IUPUI a 62-61 lead with 4 seconds remaining, its first lead since the 9:14 mark of the third quarter.
Western failed to execute the ensuing inbounds play, with Higginbotham throwing the cross court lob right to Alex Brown, who connected on both of her foul shots. Gravina then used his final timeout to draw up the play for Hanneman, who just about everyone in the gym outside of that huddle would not have expected the ball to go to.
(Hanneman pulls up for the game-tying three pointer as time expired. Photo by Dave Eggen/Inertia)
"It would be easy to sulk and to be sad in that moment and kind of think the game's over, but that's the type of player she (Hanneman) is." Clemens said. "She's a gamer and I think that shows a lot of character in our team."
Gravina also noted his strategic reasoning for deciding to draw up the play for Hanneman on the final possession.
"She can get a good shot off," said Gravina. "If you noticed, it was a faily good play to get her some space, but she shot faked and I believe took a dribble, and then knocked down that shot. And I think she's faily unique in that she can shoot that shot off the dribble."
The Leathernecks now play the waiting game, with decision Monday ahead. Monday night will be when Western finds out who it will face in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, and where they will be playing. As of Tuesday morning, ESPNW's Bracketology page had Western pegged as a 13 seed, set to play 4th seeded UCLA in Los Angeles.
Of course there are a ton of variables between now and then. Until that point, the team plans to enjoy this monumental victory, while also preparing to make a run in March Madness.
"We're not just there," Clemens said. "It doesn't matter who we get. We want to work hard, get in the gym, and start preparing for them."
(Gravina cuts down the net as the Leathernecks win the Summit League Finals)
WIU Postgame Pressconference
Gravina Opening Statement and Players Taylor Hanneman, Emily Clemens, and Morgan Blumer