Cal U women in playoffs

California University's Irina Kukolj (22) gets past Indiana Univerity's Zhane Brooks (15) in the first quarter at California on Wednesday, Febuary 11, 2014.
California University's Irina Kukolj (22) gets past Indiana Univerity's Zhane Brooks (15) in the first quarter at California on Wednesday, Febuary 11, 2014.
Photo by Jim Ference | The Valley Independent
| Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

The California University's women's basketball team overcame a poor shooting performance and a furious second half by visiting Indiana to clinch a PSAC West playoff berth.

After an 0-4 start, the Vulcans have won 15 of their past 18 games and sit in third place in the PSAC West with a 9-4 record. The Crimson Hawks (15-7, 6-6) are three games behind Cal U.

The Vulcans blew a 10-point halftime lead Wednesday before rallying for a 62-56 victory. Their defensive philosophy won out over the offense-minded Crimson Hawks.

“Huge, huge, huge win,” Cal coach Jess Strom said. “We had a big one at Edinboro and you don't want the hangover game, especially at home. I think our kids came out and played some solid defense — not so much in the second half — but bottom line they are learning to win.”

Cal jumped to a quick lead thanks to some strong perimeter shooting. The Vulcans made four of their first five 3-point attempts to jump to a 21-11 lead, but finished the first half shooting just 38.5 percent.

California's defense stepped up, holding IUP to just 15 points, and the Vulcans entered the locker room with a 25-15 lead. Junior Kaitlynn Fratz finished the first half shooting 5-8 with 12 points for the Vulcans, while fellow junior Irina Kukolj went 2-4 from beyond the arc to add six points. Fratz finished with a team-high 20 points and Kukolj added 13 of her own.

The second half, however, was a different story.

IUP opened on a tear and tied the game at 36-36 with 11 minutes to play, before taking a five-point lead two minutes later. Talen Watson was instrumental in the comeback, scoring 11 of her team-high 20 points to help the Crimson Hawks take the lead.

“They run a whole lot of sets,” Strom said. “They are really good at running their plays, and there are a lot of them. So it's not like you can scout all of them. We tried to switch and do some things to disrupt their plays, but they have some really nice offensive players.

“They had one girl I think who finished with 20 (points), but she had to make some really tough shots. You just try and disrupt anyway that you can.”

Owning the paint was IUP's key to success in the second half. The Crimson Hawks outscored Cal U 26-6 inside and outrebounded the Vulcans 24-15 in the second frame.

“It's funny because at Edinboro we rebounded great, but then here we didn't do so well,” Strom said. “It's just focus I think. We can work on it and drill it all you want but if you don't go out and do it, then you don't go out and do it. Obviously it's great that we overcame that but it's not going to work most games.”

The Vulcans were finally able to stop the bleeding thanks to their turnover-minded defense. After reclaiming the lead with six minutes to play, the Lady Crimson Hawks reverted back to their first-half form, turning the ball over and missing shots.

IUP finished the game with a better shooting percentage and more rebounds than Cal, but the Vulcans forced 21 turnovers — which they converted into 15 points — and that proved to be the difference.

“We're not a big team” Strom said. “We're going with small lineups. But it doesn't matter. We are pressuring well, getting after teams. Our main goal is to pressure the other teams into empty possessions and turnovers.”

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