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Lopers shoot and score at MIAA tournament

Lopers women’s basketball playing against Fort Hays State.

UNK women’s basketball took the MIAA title against regular season champions Fort Hays State on the Tiger’s home turf on Sunday in a thrilling 57-51 battle for the conference crown.

UNK started the game against the first seed on an impressive 13-1 run, with eight of the points being scored by Simental. The Lopers ended the quarter with the lead, 19-7. 

“We had a lot of poise early on and kind of took their crowd out of it for a while,” Eighmey said. “It helped us develop a rhythm and it was a little quieter in here.” 

The Lopers ended the first half with a last-second shot by Simental to extend the lead to 29-18 at halftime. UNK maintained that lead in the third quarter, but Fort Hays State started to make a comeback in the fourth quarter. 

The Tigers went on a 10-1 run in the fourth quarter to cut the Loper lead to three points. Six of those points were scored by Fort Hays State guard Jaden Hobbs. Following back and forth buckets, the Loper lead was down to 52-49. Backes drained a three-pointer with 2:12 left in the game to extend UNK’s lead to six points. 

The Lopers were able to maintain the lead from there as Simental drilled the last two free throws to win the MIAA championship 57-51. The Lopers were led in scoring by Carlson with 18 points and Simental with 14 points. Kirsch was also dominate on the boards as she had 15 rebounds. Hobbs led the Tigers with 13 points. 

This win meant a lot for the seniors on the team, especially Sanger who starts for the Lopers. 

“This is incredible. This is something that I’ve been dreaming of my last four years here,” Sanger said on KRVN after the game. “Just to see the growth that we’ve made the shown over the last three to four years is awesome.”

“Kelsey in her fourth year has kind of seen this come full circle,” Eighmey said. “The goal was to get her to a regional tournament and here she has an opportunity.”

The Lopers entered the tournament facing the No. 6 seed Pittsburg State Gorillas. The two teams last faced each other in January, when UNK narrowly defeated Pittsburg State 57-53.

The Lopers knew they were in for another battle against the Pittsburg State squad.

“Anytime you get into the conference tournament, especially in this league, every team is really good, and Pitt is a really good team,” said head coach Carrie Eighmey. “You’re playing great teams in great environments. You can’t really ask for anything better in March.”

The Lopers started the game on a roll, establishing an early 13-4 advantage. The Gorillas went on a run to cut the lead to six points, but Loper guard Haley Simental nailed a half-court shot at the buzzer to halt Pitt State’s momentum. UNK led 20-11 at the end of the first quarter. 

The Lopers held their lead into halftime, ending the second quarter 30-21. The Gorillas battled back to cut the lead to three points midway through the third quarter. Loper forward Elisa Backes responded with two buckets of her own, extending the lead to seven. UNK forward Brooke Carlson also contributed to the run, scoring six straight points to extend the lead to 11. 

“I’ve been really focusing on finishing better in the post and just keeping my eyes up,” Carlson said. “Knowing when the double is coming and passing it out to teammates who are open as well. We just all work really well together.”

The Lopers cruised on their momentum to close out the game 66-50. Carlson led the team with 20 points followed by Simental with 17 and Backes with 11. UNK outrebounded Pittsburg State 43-28, with 10 rebounds on the offensive end. The Lopers dominated the paint as well, outscoring the Gorillas in that area 48-16.

“We went exactly where we wanted to go with the ball, where we knew we had advantages,” Eighmey said. “We wanted to establish a presence in the paint first, and we were able to do that. That kind of opened some things up for other players too.”

Advancing to the semi-finals, UNK traveled to Hays, Kansas on Saturday to take on the Washburn Ichabods. The Lopers managed a thin 25-24 lead at halftime despite a slow second quarter with only 13 points scored between the two teams. 

The Lopers exploded in the third quarter, outscoring the Ichabods 24-9. The quarter featured an 11-0 run by the Lopers, Backes bringing in six points for the Lopers. Klaire Kirsch drilled a huge three-pointer on the run to force a Washburn timeout. 

“Our defense created some good offense for us and we were also able to go in transition and get some easy buckets,” Eighmey said. “I thought we did a better job of just playing inside out.”

The Lopers kept that momentum and the lead throughout the rest of the game, winning 59-40. Backes led the team with 16 points, with guards Trinity Law scoring 12 and Kelsey Sanger scoring 10.

“Elisa was really good with playing with some pace and making sure she wasn’t getting sped up,” Eighmey said. “She was really good, especially off the dribble and getting to the rim and scoring that way. She was also able to score from the perimeter. She was able to score from all three levels.”

The Lopers will face off against either Minnesota Duluth or Emporia State in the second round of the NCAA Regionals as they received a bye as the No. 2 seed. The game will be on Saturday in Warrensburg, Missouri. 

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GRANT TIGHE, Sports Editor
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