The CCRI women’s basketball team was nervous on Tuesday, and it showed.
But the team’s resolve showed even more.
Opening up play against No. 7 Owens Community College in the first game of the NJCAA Division II national tournament in East Peoria, Ill., 10th-seeded CCRI fell behind 5-0 and trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half before coming alive. Lexi Barros sent the game into overtime with a floater in the waning seconds of the second half, and CCRI dominated the extra period en route to a 76-68 victory.
The victory kept the Lady Knights alive in the hunt for a national title, as they advanced to the second round to take on No. 2 Louisburg.
That game was scheduled for Wednesday night, with the results unavailable at press time. If CCRI were to win that game, they’d advance to the Final Four. A loss would put them out of the title picture, but they would still be playing for a place.
“I really think once we get our confidence, we’re tough to beat,” CCRI head coach Kate Lynch said. “We’re competitors. It just took us a really long time to get the nerves out.”
The Lady Knights were playing at 9 a.m., and on the biggest stage. Nerves set in, and they came out flat. They fell behind 26-13 in the first half before closing the gap to 32-27 at the break.
And even though the deficit was only five after a half, CCRI was still playing catch-up and couldn’t quite get over the hump. Early in the second half, they went down by as many as 11.
“We knew if we kept it kind of close we could start chipping away a little bit,” Lynch said.
CCRI did just that. The Lady Knights cut the lead down to six points on back-to-back three-pointers by Lexi Barros and Ahnyyah Jackson, making the score 51-45. Not long afterwards, Jenna Ayala scored to cut the lead to 57-54.
Still, after Owens brought the lead back up to 64-57 with just less than three minutes remaining, CCRI looked to be in trouble, until it went on a 7-0 run to finish regulation.
Barros got the run started with a three-pointer, and her floater with 8.9 seconds left tied the game at 64.
“Lexi Barros really, really stepped up for us,” Lynch said. “The last five minutes and overtime.”
After Barros tied the game, CCRI still had to get to overtime though. Owens had plenty of time to get a shot off and win the game.
Instead, the Lady Knights buckled down, keeping Owens from getting any real quality look at the basket and extending the game for an extra period.
“We just kept pressure on the ball,” Lynch said. “We didn’t want them to have a clear, open look, even if it’s a half court shot. We put the pressure on them a little bit.”
That put the momentum squarely in CCRI’s corner as overtime began. Already 2-0 in overtime this season, the Lady Knights felt like they were in a good spot.
And even after Owens scored the first basket of the extra period, CCRI was ready to go. Jackson hit a three-pointer to give the Lady Knights their first lead of the game, before Owens scored again to go up 68-67. From there, Barros and Nyjah Porcher set off a 9-0 run to finish the game and give CCRI an improbable victory.
“We kind of got that swag back, if you want to call it that,” Lynch said. “The coaches figured that if we tied it up, we were going to win it.”
CCRI was able to earn the win without a huge night from leading scorer Jahira Smith, who has been the team’s top player all season long. Averaging 18 points per game, she was limited to just seven on Tuesday.
But others stepped up. Barros poured in a career-high 28 points, including hitting four three-pointers. Porcher added 15 points and six rebounds, while Ayala had 11 points and 11 rebounds. Jackson had 10 points and seven rebounds.
“If you’re scouting us, you’ve heard about Jahira, you’ve seen the film, you’ve seen the stats,” Lynch said. “Obviously, she’s going to be your focus. At the same time we do have other players who can step up. Jah did a good job understanding the game, and understanding that everyone else is having a pretty good game.”
CCRI is now 25-5 on the year. Their opponent on Wednesday – Louisburg – is 29-3 and regarded as one of the favorites in the tournament.
The Lady Knights are just focused on trying to advance.
“It’ll be a tough one,” Lynch said. “We’ll have our hands full. They’re very athletic. We really have to be able to get back on defense. But it’s definitely a doable game, a beatable team.”
To follow all the NJCAA D-II tournament, go to the NJCAA Div. II Women’s Basketball Championship Facebook Page or follow the games on Twitter by following: @CCRIathletics and @NJCAATourneyICC.