ST. CHARLES, Mo. — If Sunday’s championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference women’s basketball tournament is anything like Saturday’s semifinals, the fans at The Family Arena are in for a treat.
For the first time, both semifinals went to overtime with top-seeded Wichita State and No. 3 seed Illinois State advancing.
The Redbirds fought for a 64-61 win against second-seeded Creighton and the Shockers overcame a 32-21 halftime deficit to defeat No. 4 seed Northern Iowa 75-71. Sunday’s championship is at 2 p.m.
“Our players stepped up big-time against a really good team,” Illinois State coach Stephanie Glance said. “We gutted it out down the stretch and owned the boards. That was huge.”
Illinois State (23-9) led 29-18 at halftime before watching its lead whither away as Creighton (24-7) stormed back to take a nine-point advantage with five minutes left in regulation.
“We really had to settle down and get our focus back on the defensive end,” said senior Candace Sykes, who led the Redbirds with 18 points and 12 rebounds.
The Bluejays still have a strong résumé for an NCAA tournament berth. But coach Jim Flanery and his team will have to wait until Monday to find out whether they made the field of 64.
“If we lose by 20, maybe it’d be hard to make a case, but we played a great schedule,” Flanery said. “We had very good wins, didn’t have bad losses and we’re a very competitive team.
“We’ve got an RPI that will still be in the 30s. I checked and 84 percent of teams with RPIs in the 30s make the NCAA tournament. So there you go.”
After missing all five of her shots and going scoreless Friday, Ally Jensen found her stroke Saturday.
The senior scored 14 of her 18 points in the second half as Creighton shook off an 11-point halftime deficit to overtake Illinois State before a Redbird rally forced overtime.
Jensen’s shooting struggles were specifically cited by Flanery following the quarterfinal win against 10th-seeded Southern Illinois. Flanery attributed Friday’s failings to nerves, and Jensen said she was not as tense Saturday.
Jensen, who had three points at halftime, caught fire in the second half. She finished 6 of 9 shooting, including 5 of 8 from 3-point range. McKenzie Fujan also got hot after halftime for the Bluejays, scoring 16 of her 22 points in the second half.
“We had trouble with their zone,” Fujan said, “but we kind of figured it out in the second half.”
Illinois State scored the game’s first five points before Sarah Nelson got Creighton on the board with a 10-footer two minutes in. Nelson finished with six points and 11 rebounds. The 6-foot junior is three points shy of 1,000 for her career.
The Redbirds led 9-4 until a Jensen 3-pointer and a Nelson free throw made it a one-point game. But ISU again stretched its lead to five with 7:12 remaining in the first half.
“We had a rough first half,” said Flanery, whose team made 7 of 20 first-half attempts from the field.
The Redbirds crashed the boards well and controlled the interior with 13 offensive rebounds, leading to nine second-chance points. ISU outscored the Bluejays 34-18 in the paint.
“We may be undersized, but we’ve got big hearts and big courage, so we’re playing big,” said Glance, who was an assistant under coaching legends Kay Yow and Pat Summitt before arriving in Normal in 2010.
Creighton whittled down the Illinois State lead, and a Fujan 3-pointer made it 33-30. Following a pair of free throws from Janae Smith, a Jensen 3-pointer cut the Bluejays’ deficit to two. Fujan tied it 35-35 and, after a Carli Tritz steal, another Jensen 3 gave Creighton its first lead of the game with 14:21 remaining. Tritz then stole the inbounds pass, and her layup put the Bluejays up by five.
Creighton had opportunities to put the game out of reach, but missed several layups down the stretch. Those misses allowed the Redbirds to hang around, and they tied it 55-55 on a Jamie Russell bucket with 2:12 remaining. Tritz missed a shot at the buzzer, and Illinois State used its momentum in overtime.
Sykes and Russell led the late charge that eventually landed the Redbirds in the Valley title game.
“I’m not surprised,” Russell said. “I expected this out of our team. Now we’re just focused on (Sunday) and we’re going to get that championship.”
Meanwhile, Creighton was left thinking about how the game slipped away.
“We obviously missed quite a few easy shots at the end where we could have maybe built a little bit more separation,” Flanery said. “That hurt us, but we fought to the end and it was a good game.
“There’s a lot of heartache in that locker room. We had a good year, and hopefully we’ll get some good news on Monday.”