LINCOLN, NEB.—Surging back from an 18-point deficit, the Central College women’s basketball team overcame Nebraska Wesleyan University 82-75 Saturday and, for the first time since 2005, is headed to the conference tournament.
The Dutch secured the last spot in the six-team American Rivers field. They’re 6-9 in league play with just one regular-season game remaining. Nebraska Wesleyan (7-15 overall) and the University of Dubuque are tied for seventh at 3-11 in conference play. Central, 14-10 overall, matched its highest win total since 2001-02 and its six conference wins are the program’s most since 2003-04.
Nebraska Wesleyan (7-15 overall, 3-11 conference) jumped to an 11-2 lead in the opening six minutes and was up 23-12 after one period. The Prairie Wolves widened the gap to 38-20 with 4 minutes let in the half before settling for a 43-32 halftime bulge. Still down 60-50 with just over 2 minutes left in the third period, Central made its move with a 9-0 run sparked by a 3-pointer from freshman guard Kelsea Hurley (Scottsdale, Ariz., Desert Mountain HS).
Central took its first lead of the day, 65-63, on a Hurley layup with 7:30 left in the game. The lead changed hands five times before the Dutch went on top for good with 1:30 remaining on a 3-pointer by guard Maci Gambell (sophomore, Hedrick, Pekin HS).
“We just kept fighting,” coach Joe Steinkamp said. “These players never give up. For the second-straight game we had a double-digit deficit but didn’t get rattled. We stuck to the plan.”
Hurley recorded her first career double-double and junior forward Payton Rogers (Moravia) notched her second. Hurley rained in 23 points with 12 rebounds and three assists while Rogers came off the bench to score 11 points with 10 boards. Gambell had 15 points and six rebounds while forward Kendall Brown (senior, Moravia) added 12 points with three assists and three blocked shots. Brown entered the game ranked 18th in the NCAA Division III in blocked shots per game with 2.87 and has 69 for the year, four short of the school season mark she set last year. Brown also ranks seventh nationally in field goal percentage at 61.5%.
“It was fun to see how many different people were able to make plays down the stretch,” Steinkamp said.
Steinkamp also cited point guard Emily Hay (junior, Stanwood, North Cedar HS) who had nine points with four assists. She was assigned to guard high-scoring guard Caitlin Navratil, who had 34 points, but only 11 in the second half.
“Emily did a good job in the second half,” Steinkamp said. “She really denied her the ball and slowed her down. She also hit some threes, passed the ball well and had a good all-around game.”
Central committed just 10 turnovers, its second-lowest total of the season. After hitting just 31.3% of its first-quarter shots, the Dutch were 50.0% or better the rest of the way, finishing at 47.0% to Nebraska Wesleyan’s 41.5% and held a 45-36 rebounding advantage.
“We definitely rebounded better in the second half,” Steinkamp said. “They had outrebounded us in the first half. But when we started rebounding we were able to get out in transition.”
Steinkamp senses his team’s confidence level is rising.
“They really believe they can go on the road and win big games,” he said. “The fact that we’ve been in these close games is giving us confidence in how to play down the stretch.”
Central wraps up the regular season Wednesday night at Storm Lake against Buena Vista University in a women’s-men’s doubleheader starting at 5:30 p.m. The Beavers are 0-13 in the league and 1-21 overall. Central was a 71-56 winner in the teams’ first meeting at Pella Jan. 22.
Steinkamp stressed that his team won’t be looking ahead to the conference tournament.
“We just want to finish the regular season on a great note and get that momentum going into the conference tournament,” he said. “We’ve said all year that we want to get a little better every day and these players are showing that they are.”
But Steinkamp, who began his quest to end years of frustration for the program in 2017, said it’s also a milestone to celebrate.
“When you accomplish something like this, a lot of people deserve credit and I really want to thank our coaching staff (assistants) Amy Briggs and Austin Hellbusch,” he said. “They do an unbelievable job throughout the year behind the scenes,
“So many people put so much into us reaching this point. I’m really proud of everyone in the program who has played a role.”
The Dutch have a bye from league action next Saturday and league tourney play begins Feb. 25. Pairings are still to be determined.