Women move on to Heart finals with upset win at CMU

Story by Jim Joyner, Sports Editor

The Baker women’s basketball team upset the top-seeded Central Methodist Eagles 64-59 in the Heart of America Athletic Conference tournament semifinals in Fayette, Missouri, on Saturday. The Wildcats are on their way to their second Heart tournament final in the last three seasons.

Sophomore Sydney Buchel’s career-high 17 points, nine rebounds and two blocks led Baker to the first win by a conference opponent on CMU’s home floor this season. The Eagles, who came in shooting 37 percent from the 3-point line, shot 1-11 from deep.

The Wildcats now advance to the conference tournament championship game on Tuesday night in Olathe against the MidAmerica Nazarene Pioneers, who won 67-51 against Benedictine on Saturday. The Pioneers are No. 9 in the NAIA and the second seed in the conference tournament.

Despite six turnovers in the first six minutes against CMU, Baker jumped out to a 14-7 lead. Buchel nailed her first four shots, including three 3-pointers.

Baker’s biggest problem was allowing Central Methodist to score in transition. CMU snuck behind Baker’s defense for four easy baskets in the opening quarter. Despite eight first-half turnovers, Baker only trailed 19-18 at the end of the first quarter.

Two trifectas from Buchel and senior Jami Hodge gave Baker its hot start in the second quarter. Baker still struggled to maintain possession with a stretch of four straight turnovers.

A missed breakaway layup by CMU’s Alissa Campanero and a missed free throw allowed Baker to stay close. When CMU failed to capitalize in the second quarter, Baker responded with sharp shooting.

Seniors Ericka Simpson and Macy Wallisch took over the scoring before halftime. Wallisch dominated the smaller Eagles at the rim and Simpson nailed a big 3-pointer. Baker also started the game 6-6 from the free-throw line.

Baker led CMU 37-31 at the break and Buchel had a game-high 11 points.

CMU started the third quarter with a rally. Baker turned the ball over three of its first four possessions, and the Eagles immediately tied the game at 37-37. But Baker responded and started to pull away from the Eagles.

The 3-point shooting stayed hot and the Wildcats outplayed the No. 13 team in the NAIA in all facets. Baker led 55-48 at the end of the third quarter.

CMU opened the fourth quarter on a 7-3 run as Baker couldn’t catch a break offensively or defensively. Baker missed three open looks from 3-point range and allowed for CMU to get back into the game. Baker led 59-57 with 1:30 to play.

After holding on defensively for the first 27 seconds of the shot clock, Hale tied the game up at 59-59 with 1:07 to play on her signature 10-foot jump shot. Baker came down the floor after a timeout, and off a Simpson miss Wallisch grabbed the rebound and finished at the rim. Baker led 61-59 with 45 seconds to play.

CMU had two chances on the next possession. CMU grabbed an offensive rebound off a DaJonee Hale miss, then Lexie Moe missed a 15-footer that would have tied the game. Wallisch grabbed the rebound, and CMU fouled Simpson.

With a screaming crowd in her ear, Simpson went 1-2 at the line and CMU grabbed the rebound. With 14.6 seconds to play Baker led 62-59 and CMU had a chance to tie.

In CMU’s final possession the Eagles elected to not even take a 3-pointer. After a timeout CMU dribbled around the perimeter for 10 seconds then drove to the basket with less than three seconds to play. CMU missed, and Wallisch grabbed the game-sealing rebound. Wallisch calmly walked to the other end of the floor and nailed both free throws.

The Heart’s Player of the Year, sophomore DaJonee Hale, had anchored Central Methodist all season. Hale came into Saturday averaging 19.5 points per game, ranking first in the Heart. Hale finished the game with 21 points on 22 shots. The Wildcats’ defense forced Hale to take contested shots the whole game.

Buchel led the way for Baker with 17 points, Simpson finished with 14 points, Wallisch scored 12 with nine rebounds, and Hodge scored nine points on three 3-pointers.

The Wildcats drove past the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena, the home of the 2016 NAIA National Championships in Independence, Missouri, on the way to and from Fayette. Saturday’s win might have punched the Wildcats’ ticket to the national tournament with a Top 15 win on the road.

A win for Baker in Tuesday night’s Heart tournament championship game at the Cook Center in Olathe will give the Wildcats an automatic bid.