Sweet lead turns into bitter loss in WNIT

Saturday, March 22, 2008

This was beginning to taste sweet, sweet, sweet.

Twenty minutes to go. Seventeen-point lead against a team that couldn't throw it in the ocean, yet insisted that trying from the beach would have been too easy.

Who needs the NCAA tournament when you have the Women's NIT?

Why take a first-round loss against the likes of Stanford or Oklahoma when you can thumb your nose at a Missouri Valley Conference tri-champion in its hometown?

Nineteen points up, 17 1/2 minutes to go.

Pack the bags, Toto. The Southeast Missouri State women's basketball team was on its way to Kansas. On its way to the program's first postseason win after back-to-back one-and-done exits from the NCAA tournament.

Not so fast, Redhawks fans.

One minute, things look good.

Seventeen minutes later, you're reflecting on the careers of Missy Whitney and Ashley Lovelady.

"It's really sad to see the two seniors go," Southeast junior Rachel Blunt said after Evansville rallied for the 60-58 victory Thursday night. "Ashley and Missy have been that heartbeat for our team. Ashley is such an intense person that her intensity goes through everybody on the team, and Missy is such a talented player and she loves to play basketball."

The heart was beating, but suddenly the shots weren't falling.

And the Redhawks were left with looking ahead to next year. Without Whitney and Lovelady.

"It's going to be weird," Blunt said.

Whitney, a Charleston native who played two years at Three Rivers before transferring to Southeast, was a second-team all-Ohio Valley Conference player last year and a first-team selection this year. She led the Redhawks in scoring (14.3 points per game) and rebounding (7.2 per game).

She went out Thursday with a 14-point, 12-rebound effort.

Lovelady, another juco transfer who was a key player in the last two campaigns, remained in primarily point guard duties Thursday with Tarina Nixon limited by an injury. Lovelady had six points, five rebounds and four steals.

"You don't fill the shoes of what Ashley brings defensively and with leadership," Southeast coach John Ishee said, "and Missy is a potential double-double every night who can step out and shoot the 3. It's going to be very, very tough to replace those two women."

Ishee, who completed his second year after B.J. Smith's quick departure, has plenty of returning firepower to chase the program's fifth straight 20-win season(*) and fourth straight OVC regular-season title(*).

(* -- Pending the outcome of an April 19 hearing with the NCAA Committee on Infractions that may wipe out the 2005-06 season and the three seasons prior in the Smith era.)

Start with Blunt, Nixon and Sonya Daugherty, juniors who have been part of Southeast's incredible run. Daugherty was the team's second-leading scorer at 12.2 points per game this season.

Juco transfer Crysta Glenn showed rebounding tenacity and freshman Lauren Sharpe ended her season with a perfect shooting performance and 11 points in a rare start.

The Redhawks have one other thing going for them next year. The unsatisfying flavor from Thursday night's season finale. It was oh, so sweet ... until that sour patch in the second half that was enough to make them sick to their stomachs.

"I hope this makes us hungry," Blunt said. "The last three years, we've really had successful seasons, made it to the NCAAs and had success in the conference. The way this season ended against Eastern Illinois and here tonight against a really good team, it really makes you want it more."

Toby Carrig is editor of the Web site semoball.com

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