By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Missouri Southern’s anticipated runaway victory over Evangel never developed Saturday afternoon.
Instead, the Lions had to protect a narrow lead for much of the second half, and senior forward Erin Rice came up with two big plays in the last two minutes to secure a 66-58 victory over the scrappy Crusaders in the final game of the Pizza Hut/Fairfield Inn Thanksgiving Classic at the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center.
The Lions (5-1) led 37-30 at halftime but Evangel climbed within two or three points seven times in the closing 13 minutes, the last at 60-57 on Tiaunshe Brown’s quick-release jumper from the left of the lane with 3:44 left.
Neither team scored for almost two minutes before Rice made a jumper in the lane. Then on the next trip, Rice passed the ball to a cutting Shonte Clay underneath the basket, and Clay made the left-handed reverse layup for a 64-57 lead with 1:10 left.
“We’ve had to rely on our defense a lot lately because our offense hasn’t been there completely,” Rice said. “Hitting the jumper in the paint ... I was nervous because it was a horrible shot. It rolled in for me. Then I knew that Shonte would be there, so I just threw it, she caught it and scored.”
“Erin was phenomenal today,” Lions coach Maryann Mitts said. “She did it all, and she played with emotion. She was very talkative in pregame ... she just had that look. If we’re going to do something special this year, she’s going to need to play like that, and I’m so happy for her.”
Clay finished with 13 points and six rebounds for the Lions, and Rice contributed 12 points and three assists.
“In practice I’ve been working really hard on getting everybody else involved, and I’m not taking as many shots that (the coaches) would like me to,” Rice said. “I’ve been getting a lot of people involved and today I was able to get my shots (5-of-9, 2-of-3 from the arc) and get other people shots, too.”
Freshman Sharese Jones also provided a boost with eight points, five rebounds, two assists, three steals and a blocked shot in 21 minutes.
“Her defense was incredible,” Rice said. “She got some big steals, a huge rebound. She played really well.”
“Sharese gave us some tremendous minutes defensively,” Mitts said. “When she got out on the floor late in the game, I thought the job she did on (Amanda Landolt) ... she really took her out of rhythm, pressured the ball, got a lot of deflections, slowed the ball down. And then she hit some big shots for us.”
The Lions shot 43 percent form the field while Evangel hit 51 percent. The Lions owned a 32-22 rebounding advantage, and guard Sam Soyez matched Jones’ three steals and five rebounds.
“The best thing that happened in this game is we had to rely on our defense to win the game,” Mitts said. “And that’s how the rest of the games on our schedule are probably going to be. At that last media timeout, we challenged them to really focus on their defense. I thought we got some huge stops that allowed us to have the opportunity to win the game.”
Sierra McSpadden and Emily Akins scored 18 points apiece for the Crusaders.
“You have to give a lot of credit to Evangel. He (coach Leon Neal) had a great defensive game plan. He wasn’t going to let us run our man offenses. He was going to make us shoot it well against the zone, and after watching us (Friday) shoot from the perimeter, it was a great decision. And then they do a great job of running the shot clock down, and then they’ll look to take the ball to the hole or shoot the 3.”