CANYON – Natalie Gamez and Rachel Jones combined for 41 points, but Kasey Tweed’s lay-up with 1.6 seconds left in overtime was the difference as the University of Central Oklahoma rallied to defeat 20th-ranked St. Mary’s University, 76-74, in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II South Central Region women’s basketball tournament Friday afternoon at the First United Bank Center on the campus of West Texas A&M University.
The first half was a fast-paced affair with the teams combining for 77 points, and St. Mary’s took a 40-37 lead into the locker room at the break. The second half was a completely different game. The teams combined for just 45 points in the second period and neither team shot better than 25 percent from the field. Turnovers also set the tone as the teams combined for 20 give-aways.
The Rattlers held the lead until the 10:06 mark of the second half when Lizzie Brenner hit a three-pointer to put the Bronchos up by one at 48-47. Micha Hester’s lay-up and free throw put UCO up by four points with 8:39 left to play. However, the Rattlers responded with a three-point play by Ashton Benford (Jr., Waxahachie) to pull with in at 51-50 with 8:21 left. The two teams traded possessions over the next two two and a half minutes with no score to show for it until Mallory Marcus hit a lay-up with 5:58 left to play, giving UCO a three-point lead. Gamez (Jr., San Antonio) responded with a lay-up of her own in traffic making it again a one-point game.
From there the teams traded baskets over the next four minutes until Benford hit a pair of free throws to tie the game at 56 with 4:06 left. Both teams went ice-cold after that until Juanita Merchant’s (Sr., Angleton) three-pointer with 27 seconds left gave the Rattlers a three-point lead at 59-56. Karlie Free hit a driving lay-up to cut the Rattler lead to one with 12 seconds left, but Gamez responded with a pair of free throws to again make it a three-point game with seven seconds left. The Bronchos brought the ball back up the floor and put it in the hands of Hester, who dribbled around as the clock ran down and finally threw up a desperation three-point from 30-plus feet away that found the net, tying the game and sending it into overtime.
The Rattlers took the early lead in overtime on a pair of Benford free throws. Karlie Free gave the Bronchos a one-point lead with 3:55 left on a short jumper, making the score 64-63. Benford again put the Rattlers ahead with a jumper in traffic from the free throw line on the next possession. Merchant then hit her second huge three-pointer of the game with 2:02 left to give the Rattlers a four-point lead. However Jones (Jr., Little Rock, Ark.), who had been the catalyst the whole game for the Rattlers fouled out on the next possession and UCO went on a 4-0 run thanks a pair of free throws by Mallory Markus and steal by Markus and lay-up, tying the game at 68.
Merchant again put the Rattlers up with a clutch three-pointer on the next possession, giving the Rattlers a 71-68 lead with 1:26 left. Cassidy Pillow responded with a three-pointer on the next possession to tie things at 71. Then Kasey Tweed hit a driving lay-up to put UCO up 73-71 with just 34 seconds left. Gamez responded with a short jumper in the lane with 18 seconds left. The Bronchos came back down the floor and Tweed found Free for a lay-up that gave UCO a two-point lead with 1.6 seconds left. Gamez’s desperation shot at the buzzer was short, giving UCO the win.
Gamez led all players with 21 points, while Jones had 20 points. Merchant finished her Rattler career with nine points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals. Benford had nine points, eight rebounds and two blocks. As a team the Rattlers hit on 34.7 percent (26-75) of their shots from the field and 88.9 percent (16-18) from the free throw line.
For the Bronchos Brenner led the way with 17 points and 18 rebounds. Markus had 16 points, while Tweed added 11. UCO made 33.3 percent (23-69) of their shots from the field and 80.6 percent (25-31) of their shots from the free throw line in the game. UCO outrebounded the Rattlers 53-49 in the game.
With the loss St. Mary’s saw its school-record 24-game win streak come to an end. The Rattlers finished the season with the second most wins in school history at 25-5. Central Oklahoma will move on to the South Central Region semifinals Saturday at 6 p.m. and are 24-7 overall.