By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Six times during the first 13 minutes of the second half Monday night, Missouri Southern either tied the game or took the lead, only to see Central Oklahoma come back and score on its ensuing possession.
However, the Lions came up with defensive stops on three of the Bronchos’ last four trips up the floor, and held on for a 68-66 victory.
The Bronchos had two chances on their last possession, but Samantha Soyez blocked one shot, and Shonte Clay rebounded a missed free throw.
“Our defense was a huge key to this game,” Lions forward Erin Rice said. “Our defense really set the tone, especially at the end. Our defense won the game for sure.”
Rice scored 15 points in her final regular-season game in the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center.
“You always play this game for your seniors,” Lions coach Maryann Mitts said. “This one was for Erin to continue to ensure that we possibly could play another game here at Leggett & Platt for her this year. She’s put back-to-back tremendous performances together. She played with her heart. Everything goes into this game for our seniors to ensure they remember their Senior Night in a positive way.”
“It means a lot,” Rice said. “For one, we hadn’t won in three games. Finally getting a win, and being my last home game, that’s pretty special. Hopefully I’ll be back next week.”
The Lions earned a postseason tournament berth with Monday’s victory, and they can maintain their hopes of hosting a play-in game next Tuesday by winning tonight at Pittsburg State and Saturday afternoon at Central Oklahoma.
Missouri Southern (12-12, 6-10 MIAA) is one of three teams with six conference victories, one behind eighth-place Missouri Western. The Lions own the tiebreaker over the four teams closest to them in the standings.
Pittsburg State (17-7, 11-5), coached by Lane Lord, is playing for a top-four finish and a spot in the conference tournament quarterfinals in Kansas City. The Gorillas are tied for fifth with Emporia State, one game behind Truman State and one game ahead of Fort Hays State. PSU has beaten Truman, Fort Hays and Emporia State, and has a home game with ESU on Saturday.
Gorillas sophomore forward Lizzy Jeronimus leads the conference in scoring at 18.3 points per game. She is shooting 49 percent from the field, 77 percent from the foul line, and she leads the team in assists (66) and steals (25).
While Jeronimus has been steady all season, center Lauren Brown has scored at least 16 points three times during the Gorillas’ current five-game winning streak, and the 3-point shooting, led by Morgan Westhoff, Alexa Bordewick and Drew Roberts, has improved in recent games.
“Obviously they are going into their post a lot more now,” Mitts said. “We’re going to have to do a great job on her. Their shooters ... Bordewick is shooting the ball a lot better. All their guard play is much better.
“They key to beating Pitt is we have to play a great 40 minutes. Against the great teams, you have to play 40 minutes of great basketball. That’s going to be our challenge is how close to perfect can we play for 40 minutes.”
The Gorillas beat the Lions 66-63 in Joplin on Jan. 16 as a flu-ridden Jeronimus scored 24 points. Roberts added 13 points, and Brigit Hesser banked in a jumper in the last minute for a five-point lead.
Rice scored 14 points and Tee Singleton 10 for the Lions, who trailed 21-8 midway through the first half.
Against UCO, junior guard Samantha Soyez played her best overall game for the Lions with seven points, six rebounds, nine assists and two blocks. Soyez’s nine assists were the most by a Lion since Kelby Fritz had nine against Arkansas-Fort Smith on Nov. 26, 2011.
“I thought Sam played very well, and she’s a competitor,” Mitts said. “One thing our staff talked about Sam was when we’re going down the stretch in the last week, who do you want on the floor? All three of us said Sam. She wants to win, and she’ll do whatever it takes to ensure that victory.”