Normally during spring break week, Ashland University Safety Services locks down the doors at Kates Gymnasium around 6 p.m.
That's what made it so fitting that on Friday night at just after 6, during a spring break that's been anything but normal, the Ashland University women's basketball team put the Saints of Maryville in lock down during an NCAA Division II Midwest Region playoff game at Kates Gymnasium.
With 16:42 left in the first half, the Saints were ahead, 5-2. The Eagles, the top seed in the tournament, scored the game's next 21 points and led, 23-5 with 9:28 remaining in the first half. Maryville never recovered and the Eagles, ranked second in the country, went on to win for the 29th straight time, 87-62.
Ashland is 29-1 and will play on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., against Quincy, which defeated Northern Kentucky game, 75-65 on Friday. Friday's other two winners were Wisconsin-Parkside and Ferris State. FSU, the second seed in this tourney, routed Drury, 74-56 and UWP, the third seed, outlasted Indianapolis, 73-66.
This was AU's 21st consecutive win at home dating back to last season. What made this victory special was that it was the first time the Eagles played an NCAA postseason game in Ashland. This was AU's first trip to the NCAA postseason since 2005-06 and it is the second NCAA postseason win in school history.
"As I was telling the team today, the other two NCAA experiences I had were different," explained AU head coach Sue Ramsey. "They were on the road. This one is unique. We're going through our same routine, same home town, same home court. It's a great feeling. That's what you play for all year long. I can't tell you how much the home court advantage means. It's electrifying. Not only are people coming to the games, they are actively participating and cheering."
In the opening minutes of Friday's game, it was a struggle to find something to cheer about. The Saints won the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament title last weekend and were red hot with wins in nine of their last 11 games. The Eagles missed their first four shots (three were three-point attempts) and seemed to be struggling to get in the flow of the game.
Ramsey has emphasized all year that she believes the defense has been the catalyst for an offense that cranks out 77.4 ppg. That was the case against Maryville. The Saints love to shoot from the perimeter and bury teams with that "bombs away," attitude. The Eagle, thanks to some great pressure on the perimeter, took that away. Shortly after that, shots began to fall for AU and the Eagles grabbed control of the game.
"Defense and rebounding wins games," commented senior guard Jena Stutzman (Berlin, Ohio/Kent State) who led all players in the game with 29 points (10-of-18 from the field, 5-of-11 from three-point range). "We missed a few shots at the beginning but once we started to play defense, it started to come."
On all of those early shots, the Eagles got good looks at the basket, but the shots didn't fall. Still, the Eagles recovered nicely. They led at the break, 47-25 and shot 50 percent (18-of-36) from the field in the first half.
"We were too wide open," offered sophomore guard-forward Ashley Dorner (Bellville, Ohio/Clear Fork) who had 17 points.
"It's excitement, a bit of the jitters," reminded Ramsey. "It's the NCAA playoffs."
The AU defense caused some high anxiety for the Saints. After hanging close for a few minutes, the Eagles took away Maryville's outside presence and shut down everything inside. As usual, the Eagles dominated play on the glass, out-rebounding the Saints, 42-31.
"The best team won," said Maryville coach Chris Ellis. "That's what the number two team in the country looks like, possibly number one."
Junior forward Kari Daugherty (Fresno, Ohio/Dayton) led the Eagles' assault on the backboard with 11 rebounds. But she got a lot of help from guards Alyssa Miller (Zanesville, Ohio/Tri-Valley) and Lindsay Tenyak (Wadsworth, Ohio). Miller had six rebounds and Tenyak grabbed five missed shots. Miller also rejected four shots and had five assists.
"Our guards starting crashing the boards," noted Daugherty, who finished out her 22nd double-double of the season with 23 points. "With our guards crashing like they did it's hard for people to stop us. Once the guards did that, it opened it up for Ashley and I. Our guards did a good job of crashing."
With that, Maryville was on a collision course with elimination. Any thoughts the Saints had about climbing back into the game died when Stutzman started to bury jumpers with regularity.
"Stutzman was the key to the game," said Ellis. "We didn't have an answer for her on the perimeter."
To be fair, the Saints were in a weakened condition because guard Shelby Miller, the GLVC freshman of the year, was battling illness. She averages 13.1 ppg., and in this game played nine minutes and did not score.
"Miller's been sick all of the last two days," said Ellis. "She's our transmission. We're losing a lot. She was a skeleton of herself. From a psychological standpoint, it had to weigh on our kids. They (Ashland) did not see our best team. But that's not the reason we got beat."
JoAnn Thompson led Maryville with 15 points. Erica Lorton came off the bench to score 10 points in 15 minutes. Forward Abby Duethman, who entered the game averaging 15.7 ppg., and a GLVC-best 8.7 rpg., was limited to four points and seven rebounds. Much of the credit there goes to Dorner, who shadowed her most of the game.
AU has not played Quincy this season. The Eagles are 4-0 this year against GLVC teams.