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Otahkians seal team's first trip to OVC finals
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Coaches usually say it's difficult to beat a team three times in one season.
That's why Southeast Missouri State University coach B.J. Smith was apprehensive entering Friday afternoon's game against Tennessee Tech in the semifinals of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.
"I didn't want to play Tech again," Smith said. "I was scared to death before the game."
But Smith's concerns turned out to be unfounded.
After winning two close games against Tech during the regular season, the second-seeded Otahkians rolled past the sixth-seeded Eaglettes 78-65 to move into the OVC Tournament championship game for the first time.
The Otahkians (19-10) will play top-seeded Austin Peay (26-3) at 11 a.m. today at the Gaylord Entertainment Center. The winner earns the league's automatic NCAA berth.
"It's pretty exciting, but we really haven't done anything yet," senior forward Lori Chase said. "We still have to win one more game."
Tech has been the OVC's dominant women's basketball program, winning 15 regular-season titles and nine tournament championships. Even though the young Eaglettes (12-17) were down this year, they battled Southeast to the wire in the season's two previous meetings, losing by six points in Cape Girardeau and by four points in Cookeville, Tenn.
Friday's third meeting appeared to take on a similar look when Tech held a one-point lead late in the first half, but the Otahkians scored the final six points of the period to go ahead 37-32, then broke things open in the second half.
"It was a tough game, but we were a lot more focused this game than the other two," junior guard Kenja White said.
Chase, one of two Southeast seniors and one of only two returning players who saw action last year, led offensively with 20 points. She hit six of 10 field-goal attempts and all seven of her free throws. Chase also pulled down six rebounds.
"We've come together as a team. We're really playing well now," Chase said.
White, who on Thursday won the OVC's Newcomer of the Year award, scored 18 points to go along with six assists and two steals. She hit three of six 3-pointers. Junior forward Yashika Sidbury added 10 points off the bench.
Southeast also got strong contributions from senior guard LaShelle Porter, junior guard Sarah Costello and sophomore forward Miah Shelford.
Porter, like Chase a four-year player, had nine points, three assists and two steals. She entered the contest averaging four points. Costello had nine points, four assists and two steals.
Shelford, averaging four points, came off the bench to contribute seven points and six rebounds to tie Chase for team-high honors.
"LaShelle and Miah both had good games," Smith said. "Miah came in and really gave us a lot of energy."
Averaging more than 20 turnovers per game, the Otahkians had one of their most efficient performances of the season with just 13. They shot 52 percent from the field (26 of 50), including 40 percent from 3-point range (8 of 20), and hit 18 of 23 free throws.
"That was one of the more disciplined games we've had, and I thought that's the most focused we've been early in a game," Smith said.
Center Emily Christian, the OVC Freshman of the Year, led the Eaglettes with 15 points. She left the game with a knee injury late in the first half but returned early in the second half, although she appeared to be hobbled.
"Emily going down for a while hurt them," Smith said. "I hope she'll be fine."
Tech coach Bill Worrell pointed to the discrepancy in free throws -- the Eaglettes had just nine attempts and made six -- but praised the Otahkians.
"That's a nice group," he said. "I like what Smith is doing and Chase has always been one of my favorite players."
After the teams traded five-point leads in the first half, Southeast found itself behind 32-31 with under two minutes left. Shelford scored inside with 1:09 remaining to put the Otahkians up 33-32.
Shelford made one of two free throws with 26 seconds left for a 34-32 lead and tracked down the offensive rebound on her miss. That led to a 3-point basket by Costello with three seconds left to send Southeast into the locker room with momentum.
"The way we ended the first half was big," Smith said.
Southeast put the game away in the early stages of the second half. Leading 41-35, the Otahkians scored seven straight points to go up 48-35.
The Otahkians increased the margin to 17 points with under seven minutes remaining, and Tech could get only as close as eight points with under four minutes to play before Southeast finished strong, pulling ahead by 16 in the final minute.
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