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IWU women earn tough win over Olivet

WILDCATS: Indiana Wesleyan calls for the ball during the Wildcats’ 78-65 win over Olivet Nazarene to open the NAIA Division II National Tournament in Sioux City, Iowa on Wednesday.

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

Toughness and grit has become a trademark of Indiana Wesleyan women's basketball in Ethan Whaley's first season as head coach.

Those two traits were never more necessary or evident than in the Wildcats' 78-65 win over high-scoring Olivet Nazarene in the opening round of the women's NAIA Division II women's basketball tournament Wednesday in Sioux City, Iowa.

Olivet Nazarene led all of DII this season averaging more than 97 points a game and a big reason is a high-pressure defense that presses and traps after misses and makes for the full 40 minutes. Tigers' coach Lauren Stamatis makes full scale 5-on-5 substitions at nearly every dead ball to keep her players fresh in the team's relentless attack. 

"Olivet Nazarene does a really good job of speeding you up and forcing you into things you normally wouldn't do," Whaley said. "Their pressure speeds you up and I thought we showed a lot of toughness, the term we use is ball toughness."

Indiana Wesleyan's guards handled the pressure well, particularly in the first half. IWU finished the game with 21 turnovers, but just six came in the first half.

When the Wildcats beat the Tigers' pressure, they pounded the ball into their post players at every opportunity.

Nicole Ignasiak poured in a career-high 30 points by making 11-of-13 field goal attempts and 8-of-10 from the free throw line to lead the onslaught. She also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds to lead a dominating 48-32 advantage for IWU on the backboards.

Ignasiak wasn't alone as Elaina Ededuwa added 10 points and nine boards while Carly Lange chipped in seven points and grabbed nine rebounds.

"It started with our guards handling their pressure and breaking it," Whaley said. "When they put four people in the backcourt it opens up a lot if you can get it over half court. They did a good job. Nicole and Elaina had some tough finishes in the half court where they faced some double teams and had people draped all over them. I was really proud of the poise they showed.

"Our post had a presence and that changed the game."  

Olivet scored the first five points in the game's first two minutes but encountered a more than four-minute scoring drought immediately after and the Wildcats used an 8-0 run to assume the lead for good. The teams traded baskets momentarily before IWU scored the last seven points of the quarter to take a 17-9 lead.

The Tigers trimmed IWU's lead to 17-14, then 21-19, but the Wildcats held Olivet Nazarene to just a single field goal over the final 5:55 of the half while putting together a 14-3 run and take a 35-22 lead to halftime.

The Wildcats limited Olivet to 8-of-31 shooting (25.8 percent) in the first 20 minutes, and the 22 points was a season low for the Tigers.

"The biggest thing was our transition defense," Whaley said. "We really slowed them down and held them to 30 under their average and transition was a big part of that. That's a really good team and they're very well coached. I thought we did a good job of putting them in situations they're not comfortable with." 

Indiana Wesleyan would lead by double digits the entire second half and essentially put the game away with a 16-2 run that spanned more than five minutes of the third quarter. The Wildcats lead ballooned to 54-29 with just under two minutes to play and they would take a 56-37 advantage to the fourth.

In desperation mode, Olivet Nazarene found another level of intensity with its pressure over the final 10 minutes and started getting more shots to fall. The Tigers pulled as close as 73-63 with under a minute to play, but the Wildcats made 7-of-8 from the foul line in the final minute to hold off the charge. 

Some of the Wildcats had faced Olivet's unorthodox style two years ago when the Tigers mounted a big fourth-quarter comeback to earn a two-point win and eliminate IWU from the national tourney. Whaley said that experience helped his team prepare for Wednesday.

"The thing we kept talking about was it's going to be crazy," Whaley said. "You have to be able to relax. You've got to stay calm and be able to process your reads and progressions and not let this double team speed you up. We weren't perfect, but I thought we did a really good job."

Anna Imhoff finished with 14 points, three assists and three rebounds. Dayton Groninger scored seven points and had five boards. Katie Key added six points and five assists while Brittany Washington scored four points, grabbed three rebounds and handed our four assists.

The Wildcats combined for 18 assists on 24 made shots and limited Olivet, who was second in the nation in assists per game (21.5) to nine.

Whaley was glad to have the Wednesday game so his team can have today off for rest after playing what he called a "track meet" against the Tigers.

IWU now meets top-ranked Southeastern (Fla.) (30-0) at 1 p.m. Friday. Southeastern needed overtime to beat Concordia (Mich.), 69-64.

"Number one, we've got to rest and get our legs back and No. 2 we've got to take care of the basketball," Whaley said about Friday's game. "This is a team that thrives on turnovers and off of soft passes. They're very long and athletic and they sit in a 2-3 zone and try to bait you into passes they can pick off. It's going to come down to ball toughness again and transition defense."