By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Standing at the foul line in a tie game with 23 seconds left, Samantha Soyez felt at ease.
“I just thought of practicing the day before,” Soyez said. “We were shooting free throws. It eased my mind, and I knew that we needed them.”
Soyez sank both free throws and the Missouri Southern Lions came up with a defensive stop on the final possession to claim a 68-66 victory over Central Oklahoma on Monday night in the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center.
Erin Rice’s 15 points paced four players in double figures as the Lions (12-12, 6-10 MIAA) clinched a spot in next Tuesday’s MIAA postseason tournament play-in game. The Lions have a chance to move up in the standings if they can win road games this week against Pittsburg State on Wednesday night and Central Oklahoma on Saturday afternoon.
Rice, 6-foot-2 senior, made 6-of-15 field goals and 3-of-3 free throws for her 15 points, five above her season average. She also snared nine rebounds and made five steals, and a seesaw affair that included 16 lead changes and nine ties helped Rice not think about playing her final regular-season home game.
“Luckily it was a close game,” Rice said. “I didn’t get to think about it too much. I started off with two free throws, thinking my day was going to go a little different than it did. Then I couldn’t hit a shot to save my life, but luckily my teammates had my back. We were able to find different people to hit different shots and we were able to stay close.”
“She means the world to a lot of us,” Soyez said. “We can’t thank her enough for everything she’s done for us this year. This was a great way to give back to her.”
Dominique Mosley contributed 12 points, Sharese Jones 11 and Shonte Clay 10 for the Lions, who shot 65 percent in the second half (13-of-20) and 50 percent (26-of-52) for the game.
McKenzie Solberg scored 16 points, including a heave from beyond halfcourt to end the first half, to lead the Bronchos (9-15, 2-14). Jill Bryan added 10 for UCO, which shot 38 percent (22-of-58).
The Lions scored the first eight points of the second half to erase a 35-29 deficit at the intermission, and a 9-0 spurt gave the Lions a 62-56 lead with 4:46 to play.
Soyez’s layin off a pass from Mosley — a bit of role reversal — gave the Lions a 66-60 lead with 2:47 remaining. The Bronchos’ Britney Morgan was fouled on a three-point shot and made all three charities, and after three consecutive turnovers by the Lions, UCO pulled even on Solberg’s 3-pointer from the top of the key with 52 seconds left.
Soyez, who had seven points, six rebounds, nine assists and two blocked shots in a season-high 38 minutes, drew a foul and converted with 23 seconds left.
“I was very comfortable,” head coach Maryann Mitts said. “She didn’t shoot the ball very well a couple of games ago, but she plays with so much more confidence the more minutes we give her. She gets in rhythm. She gets into the flow of the basketball game. We played her at the ‘3’ tonight due to the injury situation and starting Erin in the post.”
On UCO’s final trip, Bryan got open near the basket on a backdoor cut, but her shot was blocked out of bounds by Soyez, and the Lions took a timeout with 7.7 seconds on the clock.
Bryan bobbled the inbounds pass but recovered and was fouled on a drive down the lane with 2.9 seconds left. Her first attempt circled the inside of the rim before spinning out, and the second attempt hit the heel of the rim, and Clay rebounded for the Lions. Clay was fouled and missed two free throws, but UCO could not get off a shot.
“There were a lot of mistakes by both teams (down the stretch),” Mitts said. “When you have two teams that are trying to find a way to win, they have to find a way to win on game day. To the people who were watching, it wasn’t very pretty. But you can’t learn to win in practice. … What you saw was two teams trying to figure out how to grind out a win.”