Jessica Koch swiped at the basketball at half court and scooped in for the steal.
The senior grabbed the ball and sprinted down court with less than 5 seconds to play. She put in the right-handed layup at the buzzer and ran over to Missouri Western’s bench to celebrate the victory.
That play was one of four steals Koch snatched as Western defeated Lincoln Saturday at the MWSU Fieldhouse, 74-67.
“We came in knowing they were a good team and knowing what we had to do defensively,” Koch said. “They have a strong post and we all did our assignments, and that’s what gave us the win.”
Koch, who played 36 minutes in the matchup and scored a game-high 28 points, said they are starting to be more like she expected this year.
“Everyone is playing their game, and we are playing our game. We are meshing, and it is working,” Koch said. “There’s still stuff that I’m expecting out of us, like pushing the ball. I expect us to push it way more because we’re a fast team. Even our post are fast.”
Lincoln (9-3, 4-3) came into the game with only two conference losses, good for the top four in the league. The Blue Tigers started the game with a 10-4 lead. But, unlike the beginning of the season, the Griffons didn’t mind the slow start. They instead played their game and began to fluster the Blue Tigers and score on Lincoln’s tough defense. They eventually took their first lead with nine minutes and 25 seconds to play when freshman Alex Saxen put in a 3-pointer to put Western ahead 20-17.
“With Jess on the bench with foul trouble and Bear sitting on the bench for 15 minutes in the first half, I thought some of the players that came off the bench did a real good job for us,” Western coach Lynn Plett said. “(Koch and Bell) have to get a lot of touches for us, have to be around the ball a lot. I thought they did a really good job of leading and also getting everybody involved in the game.”
The Griffons took a 36-30 lead into halftime and looked calm throughout the second half.
The win gives the Griffons two in a row with Truman State coming to Western Wednesday. That game is important for two reasons — one being that if Western wins it will put itself in great position to make it back to the MIAA tournament, as the Griffons will secure its third MIAA win in as many games. The other reason is that senior guard Ashleigh Curry will serve her final game of a two-game suspension that lasted past the first semester.
In an interview with Cody Thorn of the St. Joseph News-Press, athletic director Kurt McGuffin stressed that the suspension was not Curry’s fault.
“It was one of those deals where we wanted to be careful with everything and make sure everything was right with the team,” McGuffin said. “She did nothing wrong. We just wanted to be careful.”
Curry gives the Griffons (4-8, 2-5) plenty of offense outside of already a team that is starting to find out how to score. With Koch, Brittany Griswold and Alicia Bell, Curry adds another addition to the starting lineup that can put up over 20 points any given night.
Saturday, Koch was the offense yet again.
With Bell in foul trouble, Koch hustled for loose balls and controlled the game to make up for the loss of her fellow senior. Still, Bell did not let the foul trouble affect her in the second half, as Lincoln fought its way back in the game.
“It was horrible to get [fouls] in the first half because you almost can’t touch anyone, so you just have to be smart,” Bell said. “As the game progressed, we got our hands on the balls and fought back with them. Jess made a comment at halftime to shove it back down their throats, and I think that was the mentality we came out with in the second half.”
Lincoln started the second half on a 6-0 run to tie it at 36. Bell grabbed the lead twice for Western when Lincoln went ahead off of Freddie Sims 3-pointer. Bell swished two free throws to take a 48-46 lead, then laid the ball in for an easy layup with 8:39 to play to take a 56-54 lead.
Down 57-56, Koch answered again, hitting a 3-pointer that took the lead, which stayed with Western the rest of the game. Koch nailed her second 3-pointer with 3:31 to play to add to Western’s lead. Leading by six, Koch put in two clutch free throws to keep the Blue Tigers at bay, and with one second to play she made the buzzer shot that marked the score 74-66.
Western played 10 players with all 10 scoring. Lincoln’s Vivian Essuon scored 20 points with 23 rebounds, four shy of the MIAA record.
“We just got into a point where we had to fix things or else the whole season, we were going to lose every game,” Koch said. “We collectively, as a group, decided we need to work hard and we need to do things that Coach wants us to do, and we’re starting to buy into that, and we’re getting results.”