Bowling Green State University womens basketball coach Robyn Fralick says the best way to defend against a taller opponent is with pressure.
The Falcons forced nine first quarter turnovers, including five steals, while grabbing its biggest lead, 30-8, just seconds before the end of the first quarter during a WNIT first round game against Liberty University Thursday at the Stroh Center.
Then the Falcons, Mid-American Conference runners-up, held on for an 87-80 win, improving to 28-6 while Liberty, out of the ASUN Conference, saw its season end at 24-9.
“I thought our start was outstanding,” Fralick said. “We also knew Liberty is a real good team so we knew they would make a run back.
“These are two good teams — I mean, you look at the WNIT field and wow. There is a reason they’ve won a lot of games and it’s fun to play a team out of the league.”
By game’s end, BGSU had forced 25 turnovers while committing just nine, as the Falcons outscored the Flames 27-8 in points off turnovers.
BGSU junior guard Nyla Hampton, the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and junior guard Nyla Hampton combined for nine steals and 26 points.
When we’re saying “taller,” we’re talking about a team so tall they blocked eight shots, including three each by 6-foot-6 sophomore center Bella Smuda and 6-1 freshman guard Pien Steenberger, and two by 6-3 senior center Mya Berkman. Five different Falcons saw at least one shot blocked.
Still, the Falcons managed to shoot 44% (28-for-63) from the floor, 50% (5-for-10) from the arc and made 26-of-38 free throws (68%).
BGSU outscored the taller Flames, 44-30, in the paint and despite getting outrebounded, 40-31, the Falcons had two more offensive boards (8-6) and had one more point scored off second chance points (9-8).
BGSU senior guard Elissa Brett was one constant on offense, hitting 8-of-15 shots, including 3-for-5 from downtown, in scoring a game-high 27 points with six rebounds.
Brett said the good start helped, adding that the Falcons fared well weathering the Flames’ height and shooting talent.
“I think our first quarter helped us. We got such a lead, so having that lead helped us out,” Brett said. “We wanted to come into the game with that pressure and get a jump on them.”
Brett said the game got physical in the second half, but added that the Falcons were prepared for physical play. They’ve seen it all season.
“It’s definitely tough playing in March,” Brett said. “Everyone wants to be playing in March. Our bodies are sore, but that’s what we are here for.”
Tate added, “They went on a couple runs throughout the game, but when that happens, we have to hit back.
“We need to figure out a way to stop their streak and just hit back and get back up, and that’s what we did every single time.”
Tate had 15 points, four assists and five steals and senior forward Allison Day had 13 points, five rebounds and three assists.
BGSU junior guard Lexi Fleming, at 5-5 playing against opponents a foot or more taller, scored 12 points and had three rebounds and Hampton had 11 points, two assists and four steals.
The biggest issue for the Falcons was, after leading 30-10 at the end of the opening stanza, the Flames’ offense settled down, outscoring the Falcons in all three remaining quarters while gradually chipping away at BGSU’s lead.
During the comeback, the Flames got hot from the perimeter, and shot 50% (29-for-58) from the field, including 12-for-27 from downtown (44%). Liberty connected on 10-of-11 free throws (91%). Fralick said the Falcons did just enough defensively.
“They made a lot of threes in a row, and I felt we just kept having a timely score or a timely stop,” Fralick said.
Steenberger, who was 4-for-8 from the arc and scored 14 points with five rebounds and three steals, made two free throws after a steal and getting fouled on the ensuing layup, bringing the Flames to within five, 80-75, with 43.4 seconds remaining.
BGSU’s defense ramped up again as Tate had a steal and blocked a shot and Hampton deflected a pass, leading to a steal by BGSU sophomore guard Amy Velasco, who was fouled with 32.6 seconds remaining, stopping the comeback in its tracks.
“It was so important because we could extend our lead,” Fralick said. “You’re not trading baskets then, you’re not counting on having to make two free throws and I thought those were really important.
“Amy’s steal really changed the trajectory of the game, and it allowed us to extend to seven (82-75), changing the possessions of the game.”
From that point on, the Falcons hit 6-of-8 free throws to put the game on ice. Velasco finished with seven points and junior forward Olivia Hill added two points.
Berkman led Liberty with a double-double 16 points and 13 rebounds, sophomore guard Emma Hess had 15 points, four rebounds and two assists, and Smuda had 11 points, but despite her size, was held to three rebounds, including none on the offensive glass.
As the field moves from 64 to 32 teams, BGSU will play either Green Bay (27-5) or Niagara (18-12) in the second round at a date and site to be announced.
“All preseason you took about March. March is such a big part of the season,” Fralick said. “Now that we are here, we’ve got to really enjoy this. We’ve worked so hard to get these opportunities.”