Cal U women overcome Gannon in PSAC quarterfinal
California University women's basketball coach Jess Strom wasn't sure where to start talking about her team's performance Tuesday. But after her team's 66-53 win over Gannon in the PSAC quarterfinal, for the fourth-year coach, it was all about the players.
Not that it was her first win in four attempts against Gannon in the postseason and first in seven games.
She could have talked about how the game was played at Hamer Hall instead of the Convocation Center on campus.
As Strom always does, she put her players first.
“I'm just excited for these kids. They've worked so hard,” she said. “Both of the other games against Gannon were hard fought.”
The 18th-ranked Vulcans (24-4) came out slow, only hitting 10 of 25 shots in the first half, and coupled with 10 first half turnovers, Cal U could thank its defensive effort for only being down 22-20 at the half.
“We held them to 22 points in the first half and that's pretty good,” Strom said. “But we didn't want to play half court offensively.
“We talked at halftime about getting the rebound to the outlet and let's go.”
Nettie Blake, a 6-1 senior, carried Gannon early as she scored six points in the opening 3:54 to give the guests an 8-2 lead, but with 9:28 left in the half and leading, 14-12, Blake picked up her second foul and sat on the bench for the rest of the half.
Foul issues plagued Blake in Gannon's 69-63 overtime win over the Vulcans 10 days ago.
The Vulcans' only lead of the first half was 16-14 with 8:35 to play on a CeCe Dixon jumper, but the second half was a different story.
A different Cal team came out of the locker room.
“It was nerves,” Strom said about the first half. “At halftime we asked them if the nervousness was done. We needed to relax.”
After Kaitlynn Fratz hit 1 of 2 free throws with 19:13 remaining to trim the deficit to one, Fratz and sophomore Miki Glenn had consecutive steals and layups to give Cal a 25-22 lead with 18:39 to go. It was the first time the crowd played a factor.
“This crowd was awesome and I don't think these kids have ever experienced a crowd like this,” Strom said.
Senior Irina Kukolj scored off an offensive rebound on Cal's next possession to give the hosts their biggest lead, 27-22, but Blake kept her team close.
She recorded a three-point play to trim the Vulcan lead to 29-27 with 16:09 to go.
Cal pushed the lead to 38-27 with a 9-0 run, but Gannon chipped away and cut the lead to 48-45 on a 3-pointer by McKenna Shives with four minutes to go.
Excellent ball-handling by Fratz and Glenn paired with key free throw shooting sealed the win for Cal.
Kukolj scored 16 of her 18 points in the second half, including several acrobatic layups, while Glenn also added 18 points. She was 10 of 10 from the free throw line. Fratz added 17 points for the Vulcans.
Blake led Gannon (21-7) with 13 points.
“I don't know (how I made those) but I was confident,” Kukolj said. “But the second half was the difference. We went for every loose ball and were all over the floor and this crowd was amazing.”
Cal U advances to play at Bloomsburg Saturday in the PSAC semifinals.
“We would love to have this advantage again. All we have to do is win the PSAC,” she said.
Fratz led Cal U with eight rebounds and Kukolj grabbed six … In their loss to Gannon Feb. 21, the Knights out-rebounded the Vulcans, 52-29. The Vulcans ripped down 40 boards Tuesday, Gannon finished with 31. ... Cal U forced 22 Gannon turnovers. … Cal was 21 of 29 from the foul line while Gannon was 6 of 8. ... The Vulcans shot 3 of 17 from 3-point range. Gannon was 1 for 5.