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INA, Ill. - Rend Lake College women's basketball has never sent a team to the national championship tournament. A win Thursday would have changed that, since two teams advance this year from Region XXIV. This year the finals are in Salina, Kan.
On Wednesday - the day after RLC's 87-78 round-one win over Olney Central - Rend Lake point guard Tazonda Gibbs' eyes lit up when asked if she was ready for Thursday's matchup with Southwestern Illinois College.
"Oh yeah!," she said. "We want to go to Kansas!"
Things were looking pretty good for RLC at halftime of the semifinal game against SWIC. The Lady Warriors had built a seven-point lead on hard-nosed hustle at both ends of the court, and SWIC shooters were having trouble hitting. At the break, RLC Head Coach Ward McDaniel and his staff trailed their squad of smiling players up the stairs to the locker room.
"We've still got another half," he said.
The suspicion in McDaniel's voice was with good reason. Southwestern stormed back. SWIC point guard Janelle Cannon - the top Juco scorer in the nation - started driving hard into the lane, looking for contact and getting the calls. She scored 27 of her 38 points in the second half with 10 of those coming from the free-throw line. It was enough to lead her team to an 82-76 win and a trip to nationals. SWIC plays in the Region XXIV championship at 5 p.m., today against Kaskaskia College, which won 85-79 over Wabash Valley on Thursday.
"I'm proud of the way they played," McDaniel said. "They played hard and together as a team. They played with emotion and passion. They did all the little things right. We were playing a good team, led by the best player in the country, and we only lost by six. I'm so proud of our kids. They didn't give up. We were down by four with two seconds left and we were still thinking we had a shot at it. That's basketball. It's never over. You just keep fighting."
McDaniel's team came close, but it's another year of cancelling the bus trip to nationals for the Lady Warriors. RLC finished the regular season at .500 (14-14) - a big step forward from a 2-23 finish in 2012. Jennifer Moeller (Nashville) was the team's only returning sophomore. She was a leader on the court both seasons. Against SWIC, she led RLC with a season-high 23 points and hit all five of her free-throws. Moeller feels her performance was fueled by a mixture of her matchups with SWIC and the postseason implications.
"It was one of those games. It was the postseason and you go in with the mentality that you have to win. And I think I matched up well against them. They are a great team. It was also that I'm a sophomore playing on our home court."
Moeller - a two-sport athlete in basketball and volleyball - said she really enjoyed her career at The Lake. She played through injuries this year - two concussions with the second giving her whiplash in her neck. She visited a chiropractor before each game to get adjusted. She said playing through it was just a matter of focusing on the game rather than the pain.
"I had a lot of fun playing. I liked my coaches a lot and we had a really great group of girls this year. I really wish we could have won yesterday, but I'm still really proud of the girls and how our season went."
She wants to play basketball somewhere next year. The biology major has some visits scheduled, she said. "Hopefully I can find a place that's a good fit for me."
"I'm going to miss Mo," McDaniel said of Moeller. "I'm going to really miss her. She'll be a success wherever she goes. She's a biology major and a 4.0 student. Whoever gets her is going to get one quality kid, whether she starts for them or not. She is one you want on your team."
Aside from Cannon's run in the second half; rebounding, steals and shot percentage were mostly even for both teams throughout the game. RLC scored 40 in the first half and 36 in the second. SWIC scored 33 in the first half and 49 in the second. One staggering contrast on the stat line was free throws. Southwestern shot 31 free throws while Rend Lake shot only 18. RLC hit 15 of its 18 while SWIC made 22 of its 31.
"That loss is bitter," McDaniel admitted. "We were one step away from going to nationals and I've got a bunch of freshmen. Overall, it was a positive season. We ended up 15-15 and that's a huge jump from where we were last year."
He said those freshmen returning next year to the Lady Warriors will have a year under their belts.
"Sometimes that makes all the difference," he said.
For all things athletic at The Lake, visit RLC online at www.rlc.edu/warriors.
Box Score - NJCAA REGION XXIV BASKETBALL
REND LAKE COLLEGE LADY WARRIORS v. SOUTHWESTERN IL COLLEGE LADY BLUE STORM
March 7, 2013 - Ina, Ill.
RLC 76 (40-36) Gibbs 3 4-4 12 McClarn 3 4-5 10 Hilliard-Williams 1 0-0 2 Murphy 1 0-0 2 Cannon 4 2-4 10 Guthrie 2 0-0 4 Thorn 2 0-0 4 Henley 2 0-0 5 Jackson 2 0-0 4 Moeller 9 5-5 23
SWIC 82 (33-49) Duncan 5 1-2 12 Cannon 12 12-16 38 Deloach 3 6-7 13 Baker 4 1-2 9 Washington 2 0-2 4 Black 2 2-2 6
Team fouls RLC 24 SWIC 16. Free-throws RLC 15-18 SWIC 22-31. Three-pointers RLC 3 (Gibbs 2, Henley) SWIC 4 (Cannon 2, Duncan, Deloach). Technical fouls None.