Prior to the start of the River States Conference Women's Basketball Tournament, WVU Tech head coach Anna Kowalska said the keys to her team's success would be defense and rebounding.
In Wednesday's quarterfinal battle with Midway (Ky,) University, the Golden Bears proved their coach to be prophetic.
Dominating the boards and smothering the Eagles defensively, WVU Tech rallied from a seven-point first half deficit for a 77-68 win.
The Golden Bears now visit Asbury Saturday for their semifinal clash. The winner of that game is guaranteed a spot in the NAIA National Tournament that starts March 18.
"I am extremely happy. I have to give credit to Midway. They are one of the best teams in this conference for sure," Kowalska said."They are one of the best defensive teams and that was one heckuva game. Both teams showed up."
Trailing by two points with just over nine minutes to play, ShanEttine Butler channeled her inner Steph Curry, hitting a deep 3-pointer to give Tech its first lead since early in the second quarter.
"The fourth quarter we stepped up," Kowalska said. "We have a veteran team and I was hoping to play them in the fourth quarter to come back and win that game."
Sparked by Butler's 3-pointer, the Golden Bears ran off eight straight points to take its biggest lead of the game thus far in the contest. During the run, sophomore Bri Ball began to frustrate the visitor's in the post and Makayla Jones hit her fourth 3 of the game.
Jones had hit three key 3-pointers in the first half to keep Tech in the game and finished with 12 points.
"We just need someone to come in with the energy. Bri showed up today and I was extremely proud of her. It was a team effort. Both teams were tired, but we decided to push the ball," Kowalska said.
Midway's leading scorer, Allyson Callahan was a thorn in Tech's side all night scoring 32 points. Callahan snapped the Golden Bear's run with a 3, but Midway had no answers inside for Ball and Alexandria Gray.
Another score by Ball in the paint was followed by a huge block that prevented a score from Callahan on the other end. A stick back from senior Gray pushed the lead to seven before being answered by Callahan.
Knowing the loser of the game likely would not be going to the National Tournament, Gray had put her team on her back in the second half. After two free throws from Ball, Gray applied the dagger with a corner 3 as the clock ticked under three minutes.
Gray scored 16 of her 18 points in the second half.
"This game was very important to (Alex). She had tears in her eyes after the game," Kowalska said. "That is how emotional it was for her. She went through a lot this year and she remembered last year when we went down in the first round. I knew she would show up, she did it last year."
Two free throws by Butler gave WVU Tech its biggest lead at 11 points and the Eagles would never get closer than eight the rest of the way.
Over the first eight minute of the final period, the Golden Bears outscored Midway, 20-7 to take command.
"We worked on defense everyday, so I was hoping one day, like today, we would show up. We kept them to 68 points which is below their average, I was extremely happy about that," Kowalska said."
Trailing at halftime, the Golden Bears had struggled against the Midway defense that had forced 11 Tech turnovers and had eight steals, five by Callahan in the first half.
"We had turnovers, but (Midway) forced them with the zone, the full-court press and they switched defenses on us," Kowalska said. "Midway is a really well coached team. We changed how we broke the press and we changed things up on defense a little bit more. Offensively I told them to calm down, get it inside and move the ball. Don't play with emotion, play with their heads. We started to do that. They said they wanted to win."
Along with Gray, Ball and Butler played their best basketball after the adjustments. Ball scored 13 of her 15 points and grabbed eight of her 13 rebounds in the second half. Butler added nine of her 12 points in the final 20 minutes.
Brittney Justice grabbed 14 rebounds and scored eight points, while twin sister Whittney added seven points.