RIO GRANDE, Ohio — More often than not this season, drama hasn’t factored into the closing moments of games for the University of Rio Grande.
Saturday afternoon’s finish of the RedStorm’s River States Conference Tournament semifinal matchup with rival West Virginia University-Tech more than made up for that.
Ella Skeens scored off of an offensive rebound as time expired, lifting Rio to an 88-86 victory over the Golden Bears before just under 900 raucous fans at the Newt Oliver Arena.
The 20th-ranked RedStorm, the tourney’s top seed overall and the No. 1 seed from the East Division, improved to 30-2 with the victory and advanced to Tuesday night’s title game where they’ll host Midway University in a 7 p.m. tipoff.
The Eagles, who are the No. 1 seed from the West Division, punched their ticket to the championship contest with a 70-62 triumph over Indiana University East in Saturday’s other semifinal.
For Rio Grande, the 30th win tied the program’s single-season high originally set by the 2017-2018 team.
Skeens, a junior from Chillicothe, Ohio and the RSC’s Player of the Week over each of the past two weeks, capped off a team-high 24-point, 11-rebound performance with her game-winning bucket on the final possession of the day.
WVU-Tech, the No. 3 seed from the East Division, had tied the game at 86-all when Alanis Hill hit the first of two free throw attempts with 27.3 seconds left to play, but Hill misfired on her second try and Skeens wrestled away the rebound.
The RedStorm refrained from taking a timeout to set up a potential winning play, elected instead to let things play out.
With four seconds left, freshman Kaylee Darnell (Wheelersburg, OH) let go of a jumper from the left elbow of the lane which came up short, but Skeens snared the rebound in front of the goal and let go with a follow-up attempt which nestled through the net as time expired and touched off a chaotic on-court celebration.
For much of the first half — and the opening moments of the third quarter — the thought of late-game heroics was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.
Rio closed the first half on a 16-3 run to take a 12-point lead at the intermission and got the first points of the second stanza on a layup by freshman Aleea Crites (Parkersburg, WV) to take a 48-34 advantage.
But WVU-Tech roared to life over the next 5-1/2 minutes with a 24-9 run of its own which produced a 58-57 lead after a three-pointer by Whittney Justice with 4:05 left in the period.
What followed was a game of back-and-forth over the final 14 minutes, helping to produce a final tally of 12 ties and 21 lead changes in the contest.
The Golden Bears equaled their largest lead of the game when a pair of free throws by Alyssa Taylor with 6:07 remaining in the game made it 71-66.
Rio reeled off six straight points to regain a 72-71 lead with 4:22 remaining, but didn’t get the lead for good until Skeens’ game-winner.
Three of the ties and 13 of the lead changes over the span of the final four-plus minutes.
Darnell and senior Chyna Chambers (Columbus, OH) added 17 points each to the winning effort. Chambers’ total equaled a season-high.
Skeens and Darnell also tied for team-high honors with four assists, while freshman Harlei Antritt had a game-best four blocked shots to go along with eight points and nine rebounds.
Rio Grande shot 40 percent overall (32-for-80), including a 6-for-17 showing from three-point range (35.3%), and connected on 18 of its 23 free throw attempts (78.3%).
The RedStorm also had a 51-41 edge in rebounding.
WVU-Tech was led by Hill, who fueled the second half comeback by scoring 17 of her game-high 26 points after the break. She also had a game-high 10 assists to go along with seven rebounds in a losing cause.
Brittney Justice tossed in 22 points for the Bears, while Whittney Justice had 17 points and Brianna Ball netted 11. Ball also had a game-best 13 rebounds and a team-high three blocked shots before fouling out late in the game.
Tech (16-16), which defeated Rio in last year’s tournament title game before also dealing the RedStorm its lone conference loss this season, shot 45.8 percent for the game (33-for-72), including a 20-for-36 performance in the second half (55.6%).
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director for the University of Rio Grande.