Regals Reach SCIAC Tournament Final

CLU wins without Whitley

Friday, Feb. 22, 2013 12:14 am

Alex Nelson controls the ball against Occidental on Thursday night in the SCIAC Post Season Tournament semifinal game.

Credit: Tracy Maple Hi-res image

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – The Cal Lutheran women’s basketball team was dealt a significant loss even before taking the court for its Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament opener.

Senior guard Erica Whitley suffered a knee injury in CLU’s regular-season finale last Saturday. The St. Bonaventure High graduate was averaging 10.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and a team-leading 30.2 minutes per game for the Regals.

With Whitley limping near the bench with a knee brace, her teammates did their best to fill the void to start the postseason.

Top-seeded CLU opened its SCIAC tournament title defense with a 69-67 overtime victory over No. 4 Occidental at Gilbert Arena on Thursday night.

The Regals (22-4) will be playing for the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament on Saturday night at 5 when they host No. 2 Chapman.

Chapman beat No. 3 Redlands 64-62 in the other semifinal.

“We are one of the toughest teams in the country and we lost one of the best players in the country and still won,” CLU head coach Roy Dow said. “Erica Whitley is one of the best defenders in the country period. She is absolutely the best perimeter defender in the country without argument. There is no peer. But we had other players come through.”

Despite sweeping Occidental (16-10) in the regular season, CLU didn’t take a third victory over the Tigers for granted.

CLU was a No. 4 seed last season when it recorded two road upsets to win the SCIAC tournament title, including a victory over then top-seeded Occidental.

This year’s tournament rematch was nip and tuck throughout.

CLU senior Starla Wright gave CLU a 30-27 advantage heading into halftime by scoring on a rebound putback just before the buzzer.

The Regals took a seven-point lead on a 3-pointer by Natalie Stone at the 8:38 mark of the second half before Occidental gradually chipped away at CLU’s lead.

Occidental tied the game at 60-60 with 14 seconds left when Makenzie Brandon found Marquisha Corley for a wide-open layup.

Alex Nelson’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer for CLU rimmed out to send the game into overtime.

CLU led the majority of the final five minutes. Keeley Anderson hit one of two free throws for to give CLU a 69-67 lead with 14.1 seconds left.

Occidental went for the win, but Liz Little’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer was partially blocked by Nelson to help CLU survive and advance.

Wright scored 20 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead CLU, which captured the SCIAC regular-season title outright. Channing Fleischmann added 17 points and 13 rebounds.

Brandon had 20 points and 12 rebounds for Occidental and Elizabeth Messick scored 15 points.

“I think this win was huge tonight, especially with the loss of Erica defensively trying to stop Makenzie Brandon,” Fleischmann said. “She was our biggest concern and Erica usually matches up with her. But we had more than two people step up and it was just a big team effort.”

Although CLU wants to ensure its NCAA tournament fate by winning the tournament for the second straight year, Dow believes the Regals have clearly stated their case for entry.

“I think we are in,” Dow said. “I think we are in the NCAA tournament right now. Our rèsumè speaks for itself.”