Driving to the basket

UMHB’s Alicia Blackwell (33) looks to shoot against Howard Payne’s Presley McKethan during Thursday’s game in Belton.

BELTON — In a battle between American Southwest Conference West Division co-leaders, Mary Hardin-Baylor cashed in on its chance to grab the top spot in the standings by making a living at the free throw line.

UMHB went 25-of-32 from the stripe, outscoring Howard Payne by 19 points at the line, and the Lady Crusaders never trailed after the first 5 seconds on their way to a 72-66 victory Thursday night at Mayborn Campus Center.

It was the 12th win in the last 13 outings for UMHB (16-3, 9-2), which led by as many as 18 points in the third quarter and got an early leg up on the Lady Jackets (12-7, 8-3) in the race for the West title.

“I think all the teams believe that we’re the best (in the division) because they always give us their best every time we play them, but we still have something to prove,” said Lady Crusaders sophomore guard Alicia Blackwell, who was 8-for-8 at the line as part of her 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

Howard Payne — the West’s perennial power — couldn’t find its offensive rhythm in the first half and didn’t get many chances at the stripe. The Lady Jackets didn’t attempt a free throw in the first half and finished 6-of-7 from the line.

“I think sometimes the officials see that one team comes out and is more aggressive, and they start to make some calls. Then when the other team starts being aggressive, too, they don’t see it that way.” Howard Payne coach Meia Netter said. “(UMHB) getting 25 points at the free throw line makes it tough, but we know we can’t put the game on the refs. We struggled early.”

UMHB took a 38-25 lead into intermission following a first half in which Howard Payne never found its shooting touch. The Lady Jackets shot only 29.7 percent from the field and made just three of their 17 3-point attempts over the opening 20 minutes.

The Lady Crusaders stretched a 19-15 first-quarter advantage into an eight-point lead early in the second and pulled away when Howard Payne suffered through a 5-minute scoring drought late in the half. Kendall Rollins’ driving basket and Hannah Holt’s bucket inside put UMHB up 33-19 with 4:16 to go until halftime, before Chelsey Harris’ 3-pointer at the 2:58 mark broke the Lady Jackets’ scoreless stretch. Blackwell’s putback 1½ minutes later gave the Lady Crusaders a 38-22 lead — their largest of the half — before they settled for the 13-point edge at the break.

“Now that we’re committed to the zone, we’re getting better at it. The girls did a good job with personnel as far as knowing which way to force certain players to go,” UMHB coach Mark Morefield said. “Our girls did an excellent job of following the scouting report, protecting the paint and making them shoot over us.”

The Lady Crusaders widened the gap to 52-34 on two Holt free throws at the 4:12 mark of the third and were still up by 11 early in the fourth before the Lady Jackets finally hit their stride. Howard Payne cut the margin to four points twice in the final 8 minutes but couldn’t keep UMHB off the line.

“Once we realized they were calling every touchy foul and we could get in the bonus, we wanted to drive the ball more and get to the line,” Blackwell said.

Of the Lady Crusaders’ 32 free throw attempts, 24 came after halftime, including 16 in the fourth.

“All season long, when we’re driving the ball, we’re getting to the rim or getting to the line,” Morefield said. “We want the defense have to make a choice, then we move the ball, catch it on the scramble and then get by the defender. We keep preaching to drive it more. Get to the paint. Get to the paint. Get to the paint.”

Harker Heights product Jada Evans scored 17 points and Valerie Matlock added 16 for the Lady Jackets, who were 17-of-37 from the field in the second half to finish at 38 percent for the night.

Holt had a double-double of 17 points and 12 rebounds, Rollins finished with 12 points and Aubrie Elliott added 12 for the Lady Crusaders, who continue their homestand Saturday afternoon against Sul Ross State.

“This was another opportunity for us to get a little separation in the division, and the girls nailed it,” Morefield said. “Us staying composed and sticking to the defensive game plan was very impressive for a young team. Understanding that this was a big game and then playing the way did, I was really proud of our team tonight.”

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