By Jeff Budlong For the Herald
The Clinton Herald
---- — SIOUX CITY — Ashford had a plan, and for most of the first half it looked as if it might just work.
The Saints stayed within striking distance through the first 20 minutes using a very deliberate pace that limited opportunities for the high-powered St. Francis (Ind.) offense to get going. However, the top-seeded and top-ranked Cougars proved to be too athletic and skilled as they opened up the lead in the second half for a 57-37 first-round victory Wednesday at the NAIA women’s basketball tournament.
“They were trying to keep the score in the 30s and 40s, and our kids played good-enough defense and hit enough shots to move on,” St. Francis coach Gary Andrews said. “Happy with our defense and know we can play a lot better, but hopefully we will have more good games.
“Give Ashford a lot of credit. Their coach did a good job and had a good gameplan trying to slow it down and make it a low-scoring game. Our kids did a good job of keeping their composure and found a way to win by 20.”
Ashford, which came into the tournament with a 12-20 record, was in no rush in the first half as the shot clock routinely worked its way under 5 seconds before a shot went up. It worked, as the Saints found themselves down just five points at 20-15 with three minutes to go.
The Cougars (34-0) got out to a 10-2 lead to open the game as the Saints did not record their first field goal until almost nine minutes in when Elizabeth Nardi hit a shot. Ashford started the game 1-of-12 from the floor.
“We told our kids if we can withstand the first punch in the face ... we kind of regrouped and got it within four before they went on that run right before the half,” said Ashford coach Kelly Kruger, who played and coached several sports at nearby Northwestern College of Orange City. “I was proud of how our kids handled that and kept us in it.”
“They are better than us, and I think trying to run with them it would have been a major blowout right away.”
Ashford pestered the Cougars with determined defense that kept it in the game until Brooke Ridley got to work from in close. Ridley had 12 first-half points and seven rebounds to give the Cougars the nine-point cushion at the break.
“There are teams that have already lost and (are) going home, so you just have to find a way to win. That is the big thing,” said Andrews, whose team shot 9-of-22 in the second half. “We got the lead early, and if we would have gotten behind early we maybe could have got a little nervous.”
Ashford opened the second half with a chance to cut into the lead with a pair of free throws, but Madison Wagner missed both attempts. That seemed to be enough of a spark for St. Francis to pull away.
“I think that tightened us up a little bit instead of being a little closer,” Kruger said. “Then they made that run and it got to be 15 right away. If only we could have made a few hoops earlier and kept it a little closer the first half.”
The Cougars went up 39-25 with just more than 10 minutes to go. Skylarr Shurn led the Cougars with 17 points, Ridley added 16 and 10 rebounds, and Jennelle Wilson pitched in with 10.
Ashford was led by Nardi’s 14 points as the Saints wore down during the second half.
ST. FRANCIS 57, ASHFORD 37
ASHFORD (12-21) — Elizabeth Nardi 7-13 0-2 14, Janell Anthony 1-2 0-0 2, Sarah Vozel 2-4 0-0 4, Jessica Mlachnik 2-9 3-4 7, Madison Wagner 1-6 1-2 3, Jennifer Forge 0-1 0-0 0, Griffin Reed 0-1 0-0 0, Briaunna Guthrie 0-2 0-0 0, Courtney Panus 0-0 0-0 0, Genevieve Johnson 1-2 0-0 2, Quinn Rear 1-9 0-2 3, Lorielle Little 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 16-50 4-10 37.
ST. FRANCIS (34-0) — Brooke Ridley 6-10 4-7 16, Kalah Baer 2-5 0-0 4, Skylarr Shurn 7-11 3-4 17, Jennelle Wilson 4-9 1-1 10, Paige Frisch 1-2 0-0 3, Quila Jackson 1-1 0-0 2, Taylor Wilson 0-1 0-0 0, Mallory Hester 0-0 1-2 1, Bri Rinehart 0-1 0-0 0, Emily Montgomery 0-3 0-0 0, Whitney Neal 0-0 0-0 0, Jackie Dixie 0-0 0-2 0, Kaleigh Hensley 0-0 0-2 0, Jessica Harrison 0-3 4-4 4. Totals 21-46 13-22 57.
Halftime — St. Francis 31, Ashford 20. 3-point goals — Ashford 1-10 (Mlachnik 0-2, Guthrie 0-2, Johnson 0-1, Rear 1-5), St. Francis 2-9 (Wilson 1-5, Frisch 1-2, Rinehart 0-1, Montgomery 0-1). Rebounds — Ashford 29 (Two with 5), St. Francis 41 (Ridley 10). Assists — Ashford 7 (Vozel 3), St. Francis 6 (Wilson 3). Turnovers — Ashford 13, St. Francis 13. Total fouls — Ashford 16, St. Francis 10. Fouled out — None.