By Chris Chaney
The University of Cincinnati Clermont College Lady Cougars put on an admirable show at the United States Collegiate Athletic Association National Tournament over the weekend despite being shorthanded due to the loss of Stacie Lee to an infection, which resulted in her being hospitalized.
“We got (to Uniontown) on Tuesday and was looking worse and worse,” UC Clermont head coach Michael Matthews said. “I made the decision to take her to the hospital, which turned out to be a good one.”
Facing a strong opponent in the first round, eventual tournament champions, Albany College of Pharmacy, the Lady Cougars found themselves in a hole from the word go.
Shooting just 16-percent from the field in the first half, Clermont were only able to manage 13 first-half points, putting them down 18 at the break and forcing their hand in the second half.
“(Not having Lee) in the first game really hurt us because Albany was really tall,” Matthews said. “It took time to adjust to that and not getting rebounds put us down 18 points at half and 26 behind with 15:39 to go.”
Embracing the challenge, UC-Clermont rallied on the strength of Bethel-Tate grad Tess Jenike’s 15 second-half points. Ashley Keith added eight points in the second half as the Lady Cougars cut the Albany lead to two points with 1:13 remaining.
Unfortunately, the Clermont offense went stagnant over the final minute of the game as they saw their comeback bid fall short, losing 50-45.
“We actually play better when we play a faster pace and play aggressive on defense,” Matthews explained. “We were down on the fact that we were missing easy shots, but in the second half, we had to make a decision to change our press to full-court, man-to-man. That caused us to change personnel and we changed our approach and the girls got into it and we held (Albany) without a field goal in the last 15 (minutes) of the game.
“To win the tournament, you need a little bit of luck and I think Albany got it. They lucked out in the second half that we didn’t score another basket or two because they were cooked. They were physically tired; they couldn’t make a free throw and they did everything they could to give us that game, but we didn’t quite have the luck to make a couple more baskets at the end.”
Jenike led the way in the opening-round game with 17 points and six rebounds.
Determined to not let their season end on a sour note, the Lady Cougars fell to the consolation bracket where they would face the University of Maine-Machias.
Playing one of their most complete games of the season, UC-Clermont overcame an early deficit and ended the first half on a 31-5 run over the last 11 minutes to take a commanding 38-21 lead into the locker room.
The second half would produce more of the same for Clermont as they outscored their opponents from the Northeast by 14, 42-28 to roll to a comfortable 31-point win, 80-49.
“I think the second game was a big step for (the team) to make a statement,” Matthews said. “It was a growing period as well. I think we represented UC-Clermont well. In the end, I think we won a game that the girls could take a big sigh of relief and give the girls coming back next year something positive to build on.”
Two-time First Team All-American Marisa Stutz led the way in the Lady Cougars’ consolation game, scoring a game-high 22 points, while Ashley Keith added a little bit of everything, recording a triple-double that consisted of 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
Splitting their two games in the National Tournament ended the Lady Cougars’ season with an 19-16 final tally, an impressive feat considering the ramped-up schedule they played.
Matthews said that even with the difficult schedule, that’s the only thing that they are used to. They play a tougher schedule than most of the teams that they face in the tournament and use it to their advantage.
Matthews is confident that although he’ll be losing some key pieces, a strong returning core as well as a solid recruiting class will keep the Lady Cougars on the precipice of winning championships.