DIXFIELD — Nothing like tournament time to kick in the ol’ survival instincts.
No. 9 Monmouth had No. 8 Dirigo backed into a corner in Tuesday night’s Western C prelim at Defoe Gymnasium. It was already clear to the Cougars that they couldn’t shoot their way out, so they scratched and clawed their way to a 48-42 win instead.
The Cougars (12-7) advance to face top-seeded St. Dom’s in the quarterfinals at 8:30 p.m. next Tuesday. The Mustangs end their season at 11-8.
Dirigo trailed by nine moments into the third quarter but harassed the Mustangs, particularly guard Kylie Kemp, with their full-court defense and offensive aggressiveness.
“We realized we weren’t on tonight (shooting the ball), so we had to start driving to the hole and picking up fouls,” junior Jessica Conant said. “We knew (Kemp) was their best player. They already lost their other guard (Ashley Coulombe, to a late-season injury) so we had to focus right on her.”
The Cougars made up for the lack of accuracy through the first three quarters (26 percent shooting from the floor) with frequent, if only slightly more efficient, trips to the free-throw line (12-for-22). Sophomore Lauren Henderson led the procession to the line with 11 of her 12 points in the second half to go with 11 rebounds.
“Instead of settling for the 3-point shot, we tried to drive,” said Dirigo coach Reggie Weston, whose team shot 2-for-15 from long range. “Normally we hit those 3-pointers pretty regular, but tonight wasn’t the night.”
While the Cougars struggled from beyond the arc, Monmouth’s Paxton Lessard, who scored all of her team-high 12 points from there, seemingly couldn’t miss. Her fourth trey put the Mustangs up 34-28 late in the third quarter.
But then Kemp (11 points eight rebounds, seven steals) went to the bench with her fourth foul with 1:54 left in the third and the Mustangs’ offense virtually disappeared.
“When Kylie picked up her fourth foul, that’s key, (especially) when you’re already down your point guard,” Monmouth coach Scott Wing said. “They put on good defensive pressure. We knew that was going to happen. We didn’t turn the ball over a ton against it, I don’t think, but we just stopped scoring.”
Henderson, meanwhile, started scoring from the line, making four in a row to pull the Cougars within two.
Junior center Kelsey Hutchins (seven points) converted inside to give the Cougars, who trailed 8-0 right off the bat, their first tie with seven minutes left.
Hutchins fouled out with 5:30 remaining, but Emma Lueders started attacking the hoop and put Dirigo in front to stay at 41-40 with a free throw and a layup. Sabrina Daoud added a layup and Conant (nine points, six rebounds, five steals) chipped in a free throw to extend the lead to 44-40 with a minute left.
Kemp’s drive and layup pulled the Mustangs back within two with 27 seconds to go. She then stole the inbounds pass but missed the shot that would have tied it.
Conant made the first of two at the line with 15 seconds remaining. Henderson rebounded her miss and put it back in and was fouled, making the free throw for the final margin.
Lessard started the game with back-to-back 3-pointers, Lessard slashed through the defense for a couple of layups and the Mustangs jumped out to a 12-5 lead. But the Cougars saw no reason to change their defense.
“At the beginning of the game we got some steals and then we just gave it right back to them,” Weston said. “That’s not typical of us. But we knew we had time to turn that around.”
“We knew Kemp is a great player, but we wanted to make sure to work her hard and get her tired. I think that’s where some of her fouls came from,” Weston said.
Monmouth, meanwhile, packed in its man-to-man defense and dared Dirigo to try to beat it from the outside. The Cougars didn’t get on the board until Hutchins scored inside 3:30 into the game.
“We played player-to-player the entire game, but it was play on the ball and everybody else keep one foot in the paint,” Wing said. “One more set of good wheels out there and we probably would have been able to pull it off.”