After giving up an 18-point second half lead, Northwest Missouri State's women kept their composure in a hostile environment and pulled through down the stretch for a 77-72 win over No. 8 seed Missouri Southern in a first round play-in game of the MIAA Tournament Tuesday night in Joplin.
Missouri Southern took its first and only lead of the game with 6:33 left, but it lasted all of 17 seconds.
Northwest's top long-range sniper Ashleigh Nelson, who had a team-high 21 points, buried a three on the next possession, and the ninth-seeded Bearcats never trailed again.
They took the lead for good on a layup by freshman Tember Schechinger with 3:55 left and kept at least a two-possession lead over the final two minutes despite some late miscues.
"I thought it might be like that because they've come back the last few games and won," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Mark Kellogg. "By no means was it ever in the bag. We had to work for that one."
The Bearcats (15-12) have now won four straight and are headed to Kansas City to take on top-seeded Washburn (22-4) in the quarterfinals of the MIAA Tournament Friday at noon.
This marks the first time since 2007-2008 that both Northwest teams have made it to quarterfinal stage of the MIAA Tournament. The men earned their spot Monday with a 66-46 win over Missouri Western.
"We haven't talked much about getting to Kansas City, but realistically that's kind of been our goal," said Kellogg. "Now, it's going to be let's go beat Washburn. That's obviously going to be difficult."
One of two lower-seeded teams to advance on the women's side, Northwest did so by defeating an opponent that had won three straight and beat Northwest in the regular season 64-55.
There were two big differences between that game and this one.
The Bearcats shot it much better, finishing 25-49 (51.0 percent), 7-17 from three and 20-28 at the foul line. They also won the rebounding battle 38-27 after losing it 44-23 in the first matchup.
Northwest's 77 points were the most against a league opponent since a 77-60 win over Lincoln Jan. 16.
It's the third straight game in which the Bearcats have scored above 70 and shot better than 50 percent.
Northwest landed four in double-figures led by Nelson who was 7-13 from the field and 3-8 from three.
Annie Mathews scored 14 points on 7-12 shooting. Alexis Boeh had her second straight double-figure game off the bench, finishing with 12 points. Monique Stevens had eight and delivered 10 assists.
Ashley Thayer and Maggie Marnin added six points apiece.
"We're just flowing offensively," said Kellogg. "We're unselfish. We're moving the ball. I thought everybody played well."
Page 2 of 2 - Southern (14-13) scored 43 of its 72 points in the second half and shot 41 percent for the game.
The Lions were just 4-16 from three but went 22-30 at the foul line.
Senior forward Erin Rice spearheaded Southern's comeback with 18 second half points and finished with a game-high 26.
Southern's only other double-figure scorer was Dominique Mosley with 11 points. Tee Singleton and Sharese Jones had eight points each.
The Bearcats scored the game's first seven points and held the lead for all but one possession in the first half.
Southern got it tied once at 15, but the Bearcats quickly extended to a 28-17 lead with a 10-0 run.
Northwest's lead grew to 33-19 on a three by Schechinger.
Rice made a jumper in closing seconds to reduce the halftime margin to 39-29.
Northwest's 39 first half points were the most in a game since they had 53 against Southwest Minnesota back on Nov. 16.
The Bearcats continued with their efficient play in the second half and took a 51-33 lead with under 16 minutes left.
That's when the game took a dramatic turn.
Suddenly unable to miss, Southern scored the next eight points to make it 51-41.
An ensuing 10-0 run that included Southern's first two three's of the game cut Northwest's lead to 54-53.
The Lions tied it at 55 and 57 before going in front by two on a Rice jumper.
After Nelson gave Northwest the lead back, Southern tied it again at 62 on a three by Jolee Sharp.
Starting with Schechinger's go-ahead layup, Northwest scored nine of the next 10 points to lead 71-63 with 1:06 left. The Bearcats turned it over over three times in the final minute, but none led to baskets.
The closest Southern came was four points with nine seconds left.