By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
March Madness hit the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center as Missouri Southern stormed back from an 18-point second-half deficit.
The Lions, in fact, took a two-point lead on Erin Rice’s jumper from the foul line with 6:30 remaining.
But Northwest Missouri State regained control down the stretch and knocked off the Lions 77-72 Tuesday night in an MIAA Postseason Tournament play-in game before 1,252 fans.
The Bearcats (15-12) shot 51 percent (25-of-49) from the floor and hit seven 3-point goals. They hit 31 percent and made four treys in a 64-55 loss two months ago at Missouri Southern.
Ashleigh Nelson, 5-foot-9 sophomore, tallied 21 points to lead four Bearcats in double figures. Annie Mathews had 14 points, Alexis Boeh 12 and Tember Schechinger 10 points plus nine rebounds as the Bearcats outrebounded the Lions 38-27.
Rice, 6-2 senior forward, tallied 26 points — 18 in the second half — in her final game for the Lions (14-13). She hit 11-of-21 field goals, 3-of-5 free throws and wound up with 1,220 points, ninth best in school history.
“Erin was tremendous,” Lions coach Maryann Mitts said. “She ended her career on a very high note. It was at home, a great crowd. There was no doubt the crowd showed their appreciation during that run. She’s done a lot of great things for Missouri Southern. She gave it everything she had tonight to help us overcome a deficit that was just hard to dig out of.”
Rice tallied 12 points during the 26-6 spurt that turned a 51-33 deficit into a 59-57 lead. Tee Singleton and Sharese Jones hit 3-pointers just over a minute apart during that eight-minute stretch when the Lions drilled 9-of-11 shots.
“We attacked the middle of their zone,” Rice said. “That’s where I hit a lot of shots. The timing of my teammates hitting me in the middle of the zone was perfect where I could just turn around and shoot it. Then we were able to get some 3s off. It just wasn’t enough.”
“That’s what great players do,” Mitts said. “They wait for their time to shine, and she has done that the last five games. She has picked her times to make the big shots, and she did a great job of coming behind the zone at the high post and catching and scoring. When she did that, we were very effective.”
“I thought we did a nice job of getting stops during that run, getting some transition buckets and getting better looks at the basket,” Mitts said. “It’s all about tempo with us. I thought we played at too quick of a tempo at the beginning. We were rushing things. We weren’t being patient enough.”
The Lions’ lead was short-lived as Nelson hit a 3-pointer from the left wing just 15 seconds later and Boeh connected from the left baseline.
Jolee Sharp’s trey from the top of the circle pulled the Lions even at 62-62 with 4:05 left, but the Lions’ didn’t make another field goal until Rice’s 3 with 26 seconds left made it 75-70.
Schechinger’s basket on the inside put the Bearcats ahead to stay with 3:50 left, and the Bearcats widened their lead to eight points, allowing them to withstand some last-minute turnovers.
“I didn’t like the composure through the stretch when we had the 18-point lead,” Bearcats coach Mark Kellogg said. “But I loved it the last 2 1/2 minutes. Fatigue was setting in both ways. I really liked when we got down two, we came back and hit a shot pretty quick right behind it. .. Our young group rose to the occasion.
“Rice almost single-handedly got it done,” Kellogg said. “She was phenomenal, but we just had one more answer.”
Dominque Mosley added 11 points and seven rebounds for the Lions, who shot 35 percent while falling behind 39-29 in the first half and finished at 41 percent.