UMKC seniors Eilise O’Connor and Kim Nezianya were a couple of plays away from continuing their college basketball careers.
All they needed were a few more bounces to go their way.
The Kangaroos cut a 19-point deficit to one with 2 minutes to go, but Seattle ended the game by making eight of their last nine free-throw attempts and defeated UMKC 81-76 in the quarterfinals of the Western Athletic Conference Tournament at the Orleans Arena.
“When we got down 19, they could’ve packed it in,” said UMKC head coach Marsha Frese. “They refused to quit, and I think that’s been the hallmark of this team.”
Nezianya got her 18th double-double this season with a game-high 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting and 10 rebounds. Fellow second-team All-WAC selection O’Connor finished with 22 points.
“College basketball is full of ups and downs,” said O’Connor, who finished her career second all-time in scoring at UMKC. “Today is definitely a down, but I wouldn’t change any of it for the world at this point.”
O’Connor scored 12 first-half points and Nezianya had 10, but the Kangaroos couldn’t get production from anyone else. The rest of the team was a combined three for 12 in the first half. Seattle closed the first half on a 9-0 run to take a 42-30 lead into halftime.
Seattle began the second half the same way it closed the first. The Redhawks went on a 13-4 run in just under 4 minutes and made it a 55-36 game.
The Redhawks led 61-44 with 8:25 remaining, but the Kangaroos responded with a 15-0 run over the next 4:49 and cut the lead to 61-59.
“When you’re down that amount of points, it’s one possession at a time,” Frese said. “We really just tried to be more patient offensively.”
Frese said that UMKC guard Lauren Dudding made a great contribution for her 33 minutes off the bench, with eight points and three assists.
After Seattle scored six unanswered points, UMKC got the next five and cut the lead to one on a three-pointer by Calli White.
The Redhawks, who finished the game 21 of 23 from the free-throw line, couldn’t put UMKC away. In the midst of Seattle making eight straight free throws, the Kangaroos responded with three of their seven three-pointers in 25 seconds. It was a 76-75 game with 24 seconds to go.
UMKC, normally a solid free-throw shooting team, missed five free throws in the second half. O’Connor, who was nine of 10 at the line, missed her only attempt with 15 seconds to go and a chance to cut it to a one-point game.
“I don’t think it was us getting tight or anything, like that,” Frese said. “I think really, down the stretch, a lot of fatigue when you’re asking kids to play the amount of minutes they’re playing.”
In Frese’s second season as Kangaroos head coach, and first in the WAC, UMKC saw a two-game improvement from a year ago.
Now she has to find a way to replace the two seniors and improve the Kangaroos, who were knocked out of the first round in a conference tournament for the second straight year.
“I was really lucky to be in Kansas City and to play under two great coaches,” Nezianya said. “It’s the best choice I’ve ever made in my life.”