RIO GRANDE, Ohio — Some wins come easier than others.
For the University of Rio Grande women’s basketball team, its 21st consecutive triumph certainly proved to be a struggle.
A gutsy effort by Indiana University Kokomo had a lot to do with it.
The RedStorm rallied from a nine-point first quarter to deficit and outlasted the Cougars, 88-79, Thursday night, in River States Conference action at the Newt Oliver Arena.
Head coach David Smalley’s squad, ranked No. 21 in the latest NAIA DII coaches’ poll, improved to 23-1 overall and 11-0 in conference play with the victory.
IUK, which bounced Rio in the quarterfinal round of last season’s RSC Tournament, slipped to 14-7 overall and 6-4 in league play with the loss.
The Cougars bolted to a 15-6 lead just over four minutes into the game and led 24-20 at the close of the opening quarter, but lost senior point guard Deja Felder – their leading scorer (21.2 ppg), primary ball-handler and the reigning RSC Player of the Week – to an ankle injury just 20 seconds into the second stanza.
Felder was carried off the court and emerged from the trainer’s room shortly thereafter on crutches and with her ankle wrapped in ice.
Rio Grande took advantage of Felder’s absence, eventually tying the game at 28-28 before grabbing a 42-39 lead at halftime.
The RedStorm stretched their cushion to 11 points at the close of the third period and extended the lead further – to 15 points – on three occasions in the final quarter.
The Cougars, who hurt their own cause with a season-high 28 turnovers while Felder was reduced to the role of spectator, refused to go away quietly, though.
A pair of free throws by Abby Scott with 4:46 left to play sliced the deficit to just six, 72-66, but Rio responded with an 8-2 run to build the lead back to 12 points, 80-68, following a pair of free throws by sophomore Abby Wendel (Portland, IN) with 2:49 remaining.
IUK got no closer than seven points – twice – the rest of the way.
Senior Alexis Payne (Deep Water, WV) led Rio Grande with 19 points and a career-high five steals, while freshman Chyna Chambers (Columbus, OH) equaled a career-high mark of 16 points that she’d just established in Tuesday night’s win at Asbury.
Sophomore Sydney Holden (Wheelersburg, OH) had 14 points and a team-high seven rebounds, while Wendel also finished with 14 points and junior Jaida Carter (New Philadelphia, OH) tossed in 12 points.
Rio Grande shot 40 percent overall (28-for-70), but was only 1-for-10 from three-point range and was out rebounded, 40-37.
Ironically, the RedStorm may have saved themselves at the free throw line – a place where they’ve struggled throughout the season by shooting just 63.9% as a team – by finishing 31-for-38 (81.6%) at the charity stripe.
IUK was led by Scott, who poured in a career-high 23 points and had a team-high three assists off the bench.
The Cougars also got 15 points apiece from Whitney Williamson and Tabitha DeWitt, while Dejianna Butler added 13 points to go along with a game-high 16 rebounds and three assists. Butler also had a team-high three steals.
Rio Grande returns to action on Saturday afternoon, hosting Cincinnati Christian University in another RSC contest.
Tipoff is set for 1 p.m.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.
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