THE TURNING POINT: Leading 45-44 with 2:49 left in the third quarter, Ashland outscored Drury 15-4 over the next five minutes to seal the victory.
STAT OF THE GAME: The Eagles will play in their third NCAA Division II Elite Eight in the last six seasons.
Great teams aren't always great.
They are, however, great when they have to be.
Such was the case for the No. 1-ranked Ashland University women's basketball team on Monday (March 13) night in the 2017 NCAA Division II Midwest Regional championship game. The Eagles improved to 34-0 and will go to the Elite Eight in Columbus, Ohio, following a 74-62 win over Drury (30-4) at Kates Gymnasium.
"This team has just done things the right way," said Ashland head coach Robyn Fralick, now 65-2 (.970) in two seasons guiding the Eagles. "In a genuine way, they have just done things the right way. They've cared about the team first, they've had a blast doing it. They've worked really hard, they're unselfish, they're fun, they're joyful.
"And when those things align, you see good things happen. Obviously, it's fun to win games, it's fun to win that game. That was a special, special moment in Kates Gym, but the best part is they've done things the right way. As their coach, I love that that's been rewarded."
Ashland avenged an 86-60 loss to the Panthers in the 2016 Midwest Regional, and improved to 3-0 all-time in home regional title games. The Eagles also set a new program standard for most consecutive wins at 34.
Freshman guard Jodi Johnson led the way for Ashland with 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
"She was dynamite the whole game. Jodi just found ways to make plays," Fralick said, "whether it was scoring, getting to the free-throw line, second shots, offensive rebounds, getting in passing lanes. She was excellent."
Junior forward Julie Worley came off the bench to give the Eagles 13 points, six rebounds and two steals in 15 minutes.
"She's been a spark all season," said Fralick. "What a player to bring into a game."
Junior forward Andi Daugherty earned her first regional Most Outstanding Player award on the heels of her second consecutive Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Most Valuable Player honor. In the three regional games, Daugherty posted 45 points, 24 rebounds and 10 assists.
"We were motivated," Daugherty said of the rematch. "We put in the work over the summer, and it's not just me. I thought everyone played an outstanding week of basketball, and I'm just proud of them."
Johnson and Snyder also landed spots on the all-tournament team.
Ashland was known for its offense in the first 31 games of the season, but in the regional tournament, it was the Eagles' defense that carried the day. Against the Panthers, the Eagles forced 18 turnovers and kept Drury to 40.3-percent shooting from the field and 23.8 percent from 3-point range.
For Drury, Hailey Diestelkamp, Heather Harman and Paige Wilson each scored 14 points.
As one would expect in a game of this magnitude, there was an early feeling-out process. The Eagles led 16-11 after the game's first 10 minutes, thanks in large part to forcing eight turnovers and allowing just 5-of-14 from the floor to the Panthers.
Ashland's largest second-quarter lead was 18-11 early, then Drury answered with a 13-6 stretch to tie the game at 24-24 with 2½ minutes remaining until halftime. The Eagles countered by scoring the half's final five points on a Johnson 3-pointer and a jumper by freshman guard Renee Stimpert.
While Ashland shot just 37.9 percent from the field and turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, its defense continued to come to the fore, yielding 34.4 percent to the Panthers and forcing 13 miscues.
The Eagles jumped out to a 35-24 lead early in the third quarter, but Drury fought back to make it a 45-44 AU advantage with 2:49 to go in the period.
That was when Ashland's customary run to seal a victory revealed itself – a 15-4 surge over the next five minutes to put the game away.
Ashland finishes its 2016-17 home season at a program-record 21-0, and is 108-11 in its last 119 games at "The Kates."
The Eagles' 34 wins this season are the second-most in program history, trailing the 37 games won in 2012-13.
UP NEXT: A Division II national quarterfinal on March 21 at a time and against an opponent to be determined.