By Drew Lyon
Special to The Free Press
The final result was the same from its first season meeting against Mankato Loyola just 11 days ago, but Waterville-Elysian-Morristown pushed the Crusaders to the brink Saturday.
"We played much better," WEM head coach Gabe Hauer said, "It was a positive game for us, but they hit two big 3's in the second half and that really hurt us."
Jordyn Strachan, plagued by foul trouble throughout the game, drained consecutive 3-pointers with seven minutes left to give Crusaders their first lead, spurring her team to a 52-50 win in the Crusader Classic championship game at Fitzgerald Gym. The victory extended Loyola's (9-1) win streak to five.
"Jordyn's 3's were huge," said Loyola guard Jordyn Theuninck. "It was awesome for her. That's what really pushed and got us ahead."
In their first match, the Buccaneers trailed for all but the first possession. This time, they again scored the game's first points but held onto the lead for nearly 30 minutes. Six early points from Brittany Buesgens put the Bucs ahead 9-3, while the defense was able to contain the Crusaders offense and keep a 21-19 lead intact at halftime.
"We were using a 2-3 zone," Hauer said, "and that seemed to work really well for the most part."
WEM forward Hannah Steinhaus scored her team's first nine points in the second half to match the Bucs' biggest lead at 31-25. Then Jordyn Theuninck was fouled behind the 3-point line, and converted the first of 10 consecutive free throws in the second half.
"I've gotten a lot more confidence in my free throws," said Theunick, who led Loyola with 16 points. "I think that's one of the best aspects of my game...I don't really hear anything when I'm shooting; I just get centered with myself."
"She works hard at her free throws," Loyola head coach Rick Theuninck said. "She goes to the basket so much that she gets fouled a lot. It's something that she needs to be good at, and she takes pride in it."
With 10:38 left, a Nicole Dahle layup padded WEM's lead to 33-28. After a Loyola timeout, Aunikah Bastian hit a 15-foot jumper, followed by Strachan's two 3-pointers and four more Theuninck free throws. In the span of a minute, WEM's four-point lead flipped to a four-point deficit.
"Those two 3's just turned the game around," Rick Theuninck said. "That really sparked our defense, too."
The Bucs would make a run of their own. Trailing 42-34 with five minutes left, Buesgens hit a 3-poiner, scored on two layups and a free throw to tie the game with 3:40 left. But Theuninck would again prove steady at the charity stripe, making 5 of 6 free throws in the final three minutes.
"I was proud of how our team battled," Hauer said. "Loyola just made almost all their free throws late in the game, and we missed some big ones."
Loyola center Alyssa Mettler, who finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, came up clutch in the closing minutes, scoring five late points to help maintain a slight advantage and secure the win.
"It's different people stepping up all the time," Rick Theuninck said. "I think that makes us a pretty hard team to defend...we're very happy with the season so far, but we're also well aware that the second half our schedule is extremely difficult."
Strachan finished with nine points-all on 3-pointers. Lindsey Theuninck added five points, seven rebounds and eight steals for the Crusaders. Steinhaus' led the Bucs with a game-high 18 points and 13 points; Buesgens added 16 points and Tierney Winter followed with 10 points.
Loyola plays Jan. 4 at Martin County West. WEM (4-5) play Dec. 28 at home against Waseca.