Demons win second-straight Southeast Conference championship
With the Southeast Conference championship hanging in the balance, Washington seemed to go out and grab the title at the beginning of the third quarter of Friday’s game against rival Mt. Pleasant.
The Demons attacked the basket on each of their first four possessions of the second half, drawing a foul each time. Guards Stephanie Fishback and Lauren Kimball combined to convert five of their eight free throws to expand Washington’s four-point halftime lead into a nine-point advantage.
“We had to go hard,” said Kimball, who scored a game-high 21 points. “We knew that these refs are good refs and they’re going to call everything, so we decided we were going to get it in the paint and get them in foul trouble right away.”
Mt. Pleasant sophomore Mary Wester answered with a 15-foot jumper, but Kimball hit a 3-pointer at the other end to push Washington’s lead to 10 points. From there, the Demons held a comfortable lead the rest of the way en route to a 54-42 win.
“It started to feel like we were more in control, but we knew we had to keep going hard,” Kimball said.
Kimball’s 3-pointer was one of just 13 field goals the Demons made in the game. They did most of their damage at the foul line, shooting a season-high 41 free throws and making a season-high 27.
“We won by 20 at the free-throw line, and that obviously was the difference in the game,” Washington head coach Phil Long said.
“When one team shoots 41 free throws and the other shoots 13, those are challening odds,” Mt. Pleasant head coach Joanna Settles said. “Fifty percent of Washington’s points came from the free-throw line, and the odds of overcoming that are tough.”
Kimball scored 12 of her 21 points at the free-throw line. She had 45 points in Washington’s two wins over the Panthers this season, including a career-high 24 points in a 60-57 overtime win in Mt. Pleasant on Jan. 4.
“Kimball had her two big games both times we faced Mt. Pleasant,” Long said. “She had 24 down there and 21 here. She’s a senior leader point guard. You always look for that point guard who can take the game over, and she’s proven that she can.”
Fishback went 9-for-13 from the free-throw line and added 11 points for the Demons (13-7, 6-2 SEC). Senior Beth Dillon chipped in eight points and six rebounds.
Sophomore Hannah Becker had 12 points to lead the Panthers (13-8, 5-3 SEC), and she also grabbed seven rebounds. Junior Taryne Shull added seven points and seven rebounds. Sophomore Kelsi Phipps barely saw action in the second half due to foul trouble, and she fouled out with 5:15 to play after scoring just four points.
“It is unfortunate that, when the conference championship is on the line, our top players are on the bench with foul trouble,” Settles said.
Washington won its second-straight SEC title and third in four seasons and celebrated by cutting down the nets in the school’s new gymnasium.
“We’re back-to-back conference champs when nobody in the preseason really gave us any hope because we graduated so many kids,” Long said.
The Demons had lost their last two conference games to Keokuk and Fort Madison, setting up Friday’s winner-take-all game for the SEC title.
“I think the Good Lord had us lose the Fort Madison game on purpose,” Long said. “It really set the table for us to be here because who’s gonna remember that Fort Madison game? Nobody. But everybody is going to remember this game at our place to end the regular season.”
After wins over No. 11 Mid-Prairie and a tough Mt. Pleasant squad this week, the Demons will take a lot of momentum into the postseason. Washington will host the winner of a game between Fort Madison and Keokuk in a Class 4A regional semifinal on Saturday night.
“The time to peak is now,” Long said. “I just wish we weren’t waiting a whole week now. I wish we had a first-round game because we’re on a roll.”