It’s still early in his tenure at Washburn, but the reception Brett Ballard got when entering the locker room was the loudest by far.
The Ichabods snapped an eight-game losing streak dating back to 2013 against Nebraska-Kearney in Ballard’s first season as head coach. Judging by the cheers that greeted Ballard after the 78-71 win Saturday at Lee Arena, the four-year skid was on the entire team’s mind.
“Kearney had their number the last couple years to be honest with you,” Ballard said. “I wasn’t here for some of that but clearly a lot of these guys were. They were fired up for this game, probably a little more than they would be normally, but we knew it was a big deal to try to get to 2-0 in the league.”
The Lopers (5-7, 2-2 MIAA) didn’t let the streak end without a fight, cutting a 13-point deficit to three with under eight minutes to play, but WU (7-3, 2-0) overcame another thorn in its side – free-throw struggles – to hold off UNK’s comeback attempt.
The emotion, and the game’s 49 fouls, weren’t limited to just players. Ballard drew his first technical at WU when arguing an inbounds call with a ref, and pumped his fist emphatically when Brady Skeens earned an and-1 that restored WU’s lead to eight with six minutes left.
The Ichabods took control early with a 20-4 run that made it 29-16, but the Lopers answered with a 7-0 run of their own. The lead hovered around double digits, yet UNK trailed just 56-53 with 7:46 remaining.
“It always feels close to me until the final buzzer,” Ballard said. “I felt like we were kind of in control, up eight to 10 most of the second half. I thought maybe we could crack it open, and we never did.”
No Ichabod starter scored in double figures, but Isaac Clark set a career high with 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting, and Tyas Martin added 15.
“Those guys have embraced the role of coming off the bench and being aggressive and attacking,” Ballard said. “Isaac was really, really good tonight. We needed a boost, and he came in and picked us up, and Tyus picked us up as well.”
Skeens was a point away from a double-double, grabbing 14 rebounds and playing the last 6:13 with four fouls. Both teams shot 29 free throws, and WU made 19, right at its 65 percent average from the line.
WASHBURN WOMEN 57, NEBRASKA-KEARNEY 39 — It may not have seemed possible to play a better defensive quarter than WU did to open the game, but after allowing seven first-quarter points, the Ichabods turned the pressure up even more late.
UNK cut a 16-point deficit to four in the second half before scoring just three points in the fourth quarter. The Lopers turned the ball over 16 times and made only one field goal after the 3-minute mark of the third quarter.
“We did a nice job defensively,” said Ron McHenry. “Obviously, that’s an understatement to keep someone under the 40-point mark. Tonight, our offense at times was suspect. But I’m a defensive-minded coach, and I like to see that.”
WU’s leading scorers were held mostly in check, but Taylor Blue filled the void with a career-high 18 points. The sophomore ended the first quarter with a 3-pointer, then started the second with two more back to back as part of an 18-2 run that gave WU (8-1, 2-0 MIAA) a 23-7 lead.
“It’s nice to see Taylor break out because she’s had a couple games where she hadn’t hit it,” McHenry said. “It makes your offense better, there’s no doubt about it. She was pretty good from the perimeter, and we needed every one of her baskets to get some rhythm.”
Mackenzie Loe, who entered the night with a 12.5-point average, was held scoreless by frequent double teams. Reagan Phelan scored half her 10 points in the fourth quarter, which the Ichabods won 12-3.
McKenzie Brown led UNK with 14 points, but missed 15 of her 20 shots. Alyssa Frauendorfer, the Lopers’ leading scorer, missed a second straight game with a foot injury, and the Lopers (8-2, 2-2) lost both after starting the season 8-0.
For box scores, see Scoreboard.