MACOMB, Ill. - Nearly 11 months after twice allowing game-tying baskets in the closing seconds to Fort Wayne in the Summit League Tournament, Western Illinois women's basketball utilized strong defense in the final possessions to hold off the Mastodons and win 68-65 inside Western Hall on Saturday evening (Feb. 1).
The Leathernecks picked up their first home Summit League victory, improving to 11-11 overall and 3-4 in the league. IPFW fell to 11-10 and 4-3.
Trailing by one with 14 seconds remaining, Fort Wayne's Haley Seibert appeared to have a clear driving lane before Western's help defense stepped in and forced a wild layup attempt.
After forcing the errant shot, Michelle Maher swooped in to grab her career-high ninth rebound and was immediately fouled.
The sophomore guard calmly sank both free throws to notch her 14th and 15th points of the night, putting WIU up by three with 11 seconds remaining.
On the other end of the court, strong ball pressure forced reigning Summit League 'Player of the Year' Amanda Hyde to take a highly-contested 3-pointer, which fell short as the Leathernecks sealed the victory.
The late-game situation conjured up flashbacks to last year's Summit League quarterfinal game between WIU and IPFW. Then, the Mastodons tied the game with a 3-pointer at the buzzer in regulation, and again with a layup at the end of overtime, as Fort Wayne went on to win in the second overtime period.
"You better believe I had flashbacks," head coach JD Gravina said. "We've talked a lot about the defend or foul situation. I thought the girls did a good job there. I thought they were going to foul with about five or six seconds left...They made the right decision to just guard and [IPFW] really had to throw up a prayer. But there was a part of me that thought it was going to go in."
Ashley Luke earned her 14th double-double of the year, finishing with 19 points and 10 rebounds, also matching her career high with six assists.
Tori Niemann added 13 points, six rebounds and four assists to aid the WIU victory.
The win came on Western's Think Pink night, as Western Illinois Athletics raised more than $2,000 to donate to McDonough District Hospital's Linda Fund to fight breast cancer.
"It is kind of neat; it was Think Pink night and there was more emphasis on fighting because of all the survivors out there and the current patients who are fighting right now," Niemann said. "When it got to the end, [we said] we were going to fight and we were going to win."
With the Leathernecks leading by nine with 9:36 left in the game, the Mastodons sank three triples during a 13-0 run to take a 52-48 lead at the 6:46 mark.
Minutes later, Luke sank a pair of free throws and Maher completed an old-fashioned 3-point play to put Western back ahead by one with 5:31 left.
After a pair of IPFW free throws, Liz Skotowski connected on a layup to make it 55-54 WIU, but Stefanie Mauk connected on another triple as the 'Dons re-took the lead, 57-55.
Luke connected on a layup to tie the game and Maher added another 3-point play to put WIU up 60-57 with 2:38 on the clock.
A Seibert triple tied the game for IPFW, but back-to-back layups from Maher and Niemann put Western ahead for good in the second half, which featured six ties and seven lead changes.
Just two days after shooting below 50 percent from the free-throw line, Western sank 13-of-14 (92.9 percent) in Saturday's winning effort.
The Leathernecks hit just 3-of-21 (14.3 percent) from long range compared to 12-of-33 (36.4 percent) for the Mastodons, but WIU out-rebounded IPFW 42-26.
That rebounding margin helped Western to a 38-14 advantage on points in the paint and 16-5 lead on second-chance points.
Skotowski finished with eight points, Marley Hall added six points, and Sophie Reichelt had four points and a pair of boards. Rebecca Henricson totaled three points, four rebounds, five assists and two steals.
After recording just seven assists with 13 turnovers in the first half, the Leathernecks dished out 13 assists and committed just five turnovers in the second half.
The Mastodons were led by Stefanie Mauk (18 points on six 3-pointers), Hyde (14 points, five rebounds, five assists) and Seibert (13 points, five steals).
"Obviously that's a really big win for us. Fort Wayne is a really good team, they're a good shooting team and I thought we did a good job of keeping Amanda Hyde in check," Gravina added. "Michelle [Maher] did a really good job locking her down and our team played good help defense. Defensively to hold them to 65 points was tremendous in a fairly fast-paced game. Offensively, what made me proud was that it would have been so easy to say we didn't shoot well against the zone, but we found a way [to win]."
Western Illinois will close out its three-game homestand on Thursday (Feb. 6), playing host to Omaha at 7 p.m.