CIRCLEVILLE, Ohio — In the River States Conference, there are two paths to earning a qualifying bid for the NAIA national tournament.
One is emerging as the champion of the pressure cooker known as the conference tournament.
The other is to win the league’s regular season title.
The University of Rio Grande women’s basketball team punched its ticket to the big dance by foregoing the former in favor of the latter.
The RedStorm rallied after coughing up an early lead and then pulled away late for a 92-78 victory over Ohio Christian University, Tuesday night, at the Maxwell Center.
Rio Grande improved to 27-2 overall and 15-1 in conference play with the win.
The RedStorm also clinched the RSC’s East Division crown, the league’s overall regular season title and the top seed in the upcoming RSC Tournament — in addition to the automatic qualifier for the national tournament, which begins March 11th at 16 sites across the country — in the process.
The Trailblazers dropped to 11-10 overall and 5-9 in the RSC with the loss.
OCU trailed 10-2 out of the gate, but reeled off 15 of the game’s next 19 points to take a 17-14 lead after a pair of Madison Winland free throws with 1:41 remaining in the first quarter.
Rio Grande answered, though, with a 9-2 run of its own to close the quarter and regain the lead. A layup by junior Regan Willingham (Ashville, OH) with 30 seconds left in the period made it 21-19 and put the RedStorm in front to stay.
Rio’s advantage grew to as many as 14 points late in the second quarter and reached 15 with 4:30 left in the third stanza after a conventional three-point play by junior Ella Skeens (Chillicothe, OH) made it 56-41, but the Trailblazers surged again with a 16-4 run which sliced the deficit to 60-57 after two free throws by Rachel Gillum with 1:57 remaining in the quarter.
But that’s as close as the home team would get the rest of the way.
The RedStorm used a 12-0 spurt which bridged the final minute of the third quarter and the first 3-1/2 minutes of the final stanza to open up a 76-60 advantage following a layup by freshman Kaylee Darnell (Wheelersburg, OH) with 6:39 left to play.
The 16-point cushion was Rio’s largest of the night and the lead never dipped below 10 points for the remainder of the contest.
Skeens led a quartet of double-digit scorers for the RedStorm with a game-high 28 points. She also finished with a team-high 12 rebounds and handed out five assists.
Fellow junior Hailey Jordan (Columbus, OH) added 22 points, seven rebounds and a game-high four steals to the winning effort, while Darnell tallied 17 points and senior Chyna Chambers (Columbus, OH) had 10 points with a game-high eight assists.
Rio shot just under 48 percent overall (39-for-82), while going 10-for-13 at the foul line (76.9%) and enjoying a 47-43 edge in rebounding.
Gillum had 18 points, a game-high 14 rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots in the loss for OCU, while Haley Cox and Emma Koons had 17 points and 14 points, respectively.
Winland netted 12 points for the Blazers, while Rachel Bolyard had 10 points and four assists.
OCU hit 26 of its 31 free throw opportunities (83.9%), but went just 23-for-66 from the field overall (34.8%) and 6-for-27 from three-point range (22.2%).
Rio Grande returns to action on Thursday night for its regular season finale against Oakland City University. Tipoff is set for 5 p.m. at the Newt Oliver Arena.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director for the University of Rio Grande.