With its lone rough patch of the season seemingly in the rearview, the IUP women’s basketball team regained its swagger Saturday against Clarion, doing so without arguably its two most valuable players.
The undersized Crimson Hawks jumped out to a nine-point halftime lead and then thwarted a late Clarion surge to score their third straight win, 61-57 in a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division game at the KCAC.
IUP prevailed again without Lindsay Stamp and Ashley Stoner, junior standouts who are first and third on the team in scoring. Both players sat out due to injuries.
Fourth-place IUP (14-6, 5-5 division), which dropped five straight games in mid-January, plays host to Seton Hill on Saturday.
“This is good for our confidence,” first-year IUP coach Tom McConnell said. “We want to play to our potential now that it’s February. We want to be peaking at the right time and playing our best basketball as we head toward March. The last three games were a step in the right direction, and I think you’ve really got to credit our players for how hard they’re working, their commitment, and how much they want to grow and get better.”
IUP guard Marita Mathe nailed three 3-point field goals in the first 6:30 of the game, the third of which she hit with a defender in her face to put the Hawks ahead by 12 points, 16-4, with 13:30 to go.
Mathe swished another 3 with 11:12 to go to give IUP its largest lead of the first half at 19 points, 23-4.
Roughly two minutes later, guard Marina Wareham drilled the Hawks’ seventh 3 of the first half to again make it a 19-point game, 28-9.
Battling Clarion’s zone defense, IUP missed its first four 3s and finished 7-for-20 shooting from beyond the arc in the first half.
“We didn’t really know what defense they were going to be in coming into the game,” Mathe, who had 12 points, two assists and two rebounds, said. “We just wanted to penetrate and kick it out to the 3-point line and that’s what we did most of the game. We found our post open, kicked it back out to the 3-point line, and most of our guards were able to knock down the 3s.”
The Eagles picked up their offensive tempo and started nailing shots toward the end of the first half, doing most of their damage in the paint against the shorthanded Hawks.
Clarion finished the last seven minutes of the half on a 10-4 run.
Forward Hannah Heeter, the Eagles leading scorer who entered the game averaging 13.6 points per game, drilled a pair of free throws with 33 seconds left in the half to trim IUP’s lead to nine points, 35-26.
The momentum spilled over for the Eagles in the first two minutes of the second half before IUP mounted a 13-4 burst that was sparked by back-to-back 3s from guard Leslie Stapleton.
Then, after Stapleton drained her third straight 3, guard Talen Watson swished a pair of free throws to swell IUP’s lead to 16 points, 50-34, with 12:19 to go.
But the resilient Eagles forced turnovers on each of the Hawks’ next four possessions, and scored with layups in transition on each occasion, quickly trimming their deficit to eight points, 50-42, with 10:44 to play.
IUP maintained at least a five-point lead until Heeter beat a Hawks’ defender in the post and scored with a layup to make it a three-point game, 57-54, with 2:35 to go.
In the ensuing two minutes, however, the Eagles and Hawks each squandered opportunities to seize control of the game. In that span, two Clarion players watched layups rim out and the Eagles committed a turnover, while IUP missed two layups and a free throw and committed a turnover.
With the Hawks’ still nursing a 57-54 lead, forward Zhane Brooks swiped the ball from Clarion’s Raven Jones on a drive, a pivotal defensive stand that prompted McConnell to call a timeout with 14 seconds to play.
Watson drew a foul before the ensuing inbound and drilled both free throws in a 1-and-1 situation to put the Hawks ahead 59-54.
The Eagles’ Kelly Johnson made a 3 with three seconds to go to make it a 59-57 game.
Stapleton then drew a foul with two seconds left and hit both free throws to seal the win.
Watson made 6 of 6 free throws in the game, including 4 of 4 in the second half.
“I welcome pressure. I really don’t become inferior in pressure (situations),” Watson, who scored 14 points and dished out a team-high three assists, said. “I thought it was weird that they fouled me before the ball even came in. Maybe they thought I was a bad free throw shooter, I don’t know. But I just went to the line and knocked them down.”
Clarion outscored IUP, 31-26, in the second half. The Eagles limited the Hawks to just two field goals in the last 10 minutes of the game.
“It wasn’t anything I said. We just turned the game around,” 25th-year Clarion coach Gie Parsons said. “You just can’t get into holes like that and expect to win.”
The Hawks played with four guards the bulk of the game but still outrebounded the Eagles, 28-26, including 8-6 on the offensive glass.
Guard Amy Fairman finished with 10 points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals, Stapleton added 14 points, four rebounds, an assist and a steal, and Melanie Todd grabbed a team-best six rebounds.
Stamp, the PSAC’s second leading scorer who’s averaged 18.7 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game in 16 contests, missed her fourth straight game due to an ankle injury. Stoner, the Hawks leading rebounder with 6.5 per game and their third-leading scorer with 9.9 points per game, suffered a concussion in Wednesday’s win over Pitt Johnstown.