RIO GRANDE, Ohio — Prior to his team’s post-season opener against Asbury University on Wednesday night, University of Rio Grande head coach David Smalley said his team’s best chance for success might be exploiting the Eagles’ weakness in and around the basket.
But as things turned out, the RedStorm ended up beating their guests at their own game — the three-point goal.
Rio Grande tied a single-game season-high with 15 three-pointers, including seven by Kaylie Apperson, en route to a 90-89 victory in the quarterfinal round of the River States Conference Women’s Basketball Championship at the Newt Oliver Arena.
The RedStorm, the tourney’s No. 2 seed out of the league’s East Division, improved to 19-12 with the win and advanced to Saturday’s semifinal round to face West Division No. 1 seed Indiana University Southeast.
Asbury, the No. 3 seed from the West Division, lost for the second time in as many outings against Rio this season and finished at 20-11.
“They’re well-coached and they kind of threw me a curveball by coming out in a zone. It put us back on our heels a little bit and we had to make some adjustments,” said Smalley. “We wanted to get the ball inside, but we didn’t have that luxury because they were packing it in and it was frustrating. But I’m proud of the kids. We shot the three-ball well and we had to.”
Asbury, which entered the game ranked third nationally with an 11.4 three-pointers per game average, connected on 12 of its 33 attempts from distance.
However, Rio Grande fared a bit better by going 15-for-32 from beyond the three-point arc — including 9-for-15 in the second half — and equaling the 15 trifectas it hit in a 94-92 loss at the University of Pikeville on Nov. 5, 2019.
Apperson, a freshman from McConnelsville, Ohio, led the barrage of bombs. She connected on three of her seven treys in the opening quarter as Rio opened up a 23-18 lead after one quarter.
The other four came in the final stanza, helping the RedStorm maintain the one-point advantage they enjoyed at the end of the third period. In fact, all seven Rio field goals in the fourth quarter came from three-point range.
Asbury transformed its five-point deficit at the close of the first period into a five-point halftime lead and then scored the first bucket of the second half for a 48-41 advantage with 9:45 left in the third quarter, but Rio Grande responded with a 16-0 run over the next five minutes and took a 57-48 lead after a three-pointer by freshman Reagan Willingham (Ashville, OH) with 4:40 left in the quarter.
The Eagles never led again, but they did forge a 70-70 tie after Amie Conley hit one of two free throw attempts with 9:07 remaining in the game. The RedStorm responded again, though, scoring 15 of the game’s next 18 points to take their largest lead of the night, 85-73, after a Willingham three-pointer with 6:19 to play.
Asbury made things tight in the closing moments, pulling to within two after a jumper by Sarah King made it 88-86 with 1:55 remaining. A chance to force another tie came with Autumn Herriford at the free throw line and 15 seconds remaining, but Herriford — who was 10-for-10 at the charity stripe to that point in the game — missed both attempts.
Rio Grande senior Sydney Holden (Wheelersburg, OH) nailed a pair of free throws with 2.3 seconds left — the RedStorm’s only points in the final quarter which weren’t the product of a three-point goal — to make it a two-possession game and Asbury’s Faith Osborne drilled a three-pointer as time expired to set the final score.
Apperson’s 21 points led a quartet of double-digit scorers for Rio. Willingham and fellow freshman Hailey Jordan (Columbus, OH) netted 14 points each and freshman Lexi Woods (Waverly, OH) had 10 points to go along with a career-high 17 rebounds.
Sophomore Avery Harper (Seaman, OH) added 11 rebounds in the winning effort, while Holden — who didn’t score until the 2:13 mark of the third quarter — finished with seven points, nine rebounds, a game-high 10 assists and two blocked shots.
The RedStorm outrebounded the Eagles, 55-31.
Herriford tied a career-high with 25 points to lead Asbury. She also had a team-high four assists and two steals.
King added a season-high 21 points off the bench in a losing cause for the Eagles, while Zaria Napier contributed 18 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
Rio Grande’s semifinal game against IU Southeast is scheduled for a 1 p.m. tip at the Student Activities Building in New Albany, Ind. The winner will host the tournament title game next Tuesday at 7 p.m.
The RedStorm defeated the Grenadiers in their regular season meeting, 82-80, on Jan. 11 in New Albany.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.