Rutgers freshman Tyler Scaife has come up strong for the Scarlet Knights throughout the WNIT, averaging 17 points through the first four games of the tournament, despite coming off the bench in three of those games. (Photo by Will Schneekloth/Courtesy Rutgers Athletics)
Rutgers freshman Tyler Scaife has come up strong for the Scarlet Knights throughout the WNIT, averaging 17 points through the first four games of the tournament, despite coming off the bench in three of those games. (Photo by Will Schneekloth/Courtesy Rutgers Athletics)

2014 WNIT Quarterfinal Wrap: South Dakota State, UTEP, Rutgers, South Florida advance to semis

April 1, 2014 - 6:13pm

We’re down to the “final four” -- the one that’s not capitalized, because it’s in the WNIT and not the Big Dance. Nevertheless, the quartet that has made its way to the WNIT semifinals should feel that it has achieved something. Each team has won four postseason games to wipe away the taste of an NCAA tournament snub, set a good tone for November, or both.

Coming Up -- Wednesday, April 2 -- 9 p.m. EDT (7 p.m. MDT)

Semifinal 1 (Top Half of WNIT Bracket): South Dakota State (26-9) @ UTEP (29-7)  -- Don Haskins Center, El Paso, Tex.

Quarterfinal Results - Top Half of WNIT Bracket

South Dakota State 76, Indiana 64

For most of this game, including the first 17 minutes of the second half, South Dakota State held a lead that teetered between three and nine points, but the Jackrabbits could never pull away in a game that remained compelling until the 39th minute. At that late point, leading 62-57, the Jackrabbits found a brief measure of offensive consistency that had been elusive for most of the contest. South Dakota State scored on seven straight possessions, while Indiana finally flinched near the finish line.

The first big moment for SDSU came with 2:56 to go, when Hannah Strop hit a three-pointer to give the home team an eight-point cushion at 65-57. The teams traded scores and were still separated by eight points with 1:43 left, when Indiana lost the plot. A miss of a front end of a one-and-one, followed shortly thereafter by a turnover, squandered two possessions for the Hoosiers at a time when their margin for error had evaporated. SDSU built a 13-point lead in those final three minutes and found a place of safety.

Megan Waytashek scored 20 points to lead South Dakota State. Alexis Gassion posted a game-high 22 for Indiana in a losing cause.

UTEP 70, Washington 63

The University of Texas at El Paso played determined defense and took full advantage of playing on its home court in Monday night’s win over the Washington Huskies.

In a game that was tight throughout the evening, the Huskies led, by as many as eight points, for most of the first half. The Miners came alive in the final six minutes of the period, however, putting together a 10-4 run, fueled by a 3-pointer and a layup by Anete Kirsteine and a pair of layups by Kristine Vitola, to tie the score at 30 with just under a minute to go before the break. A Washington foul two seconds before the buzzer put Kayla Thornton at the line, where she hit both to give the Miners a 32-30 halftime lead.

A school record 10,227 fans were on hand at Don Haskins Center to cheer on the Miners as they forged a modest second-half advantage. This time it was the Huskies who rallied late in the second half, tying the score at 52 on a Talia Walton 3-pointer with just under seven minutes to play. Jazmine Davis and Walton combined to go 3-for-4 at the charity stripe in the next minute, to put Washington on top, by three, but the Miners wasted no time in righting the ship. Jenzel Nash converted a traditional three-point play, and Thornton drained a trey to ignite a 10-0 Miners run, that restored UTEP to a seven-point (64-57) lead with 2:22 to go.

The Huskies weren't finished, but the Miners fended them off down the stretch, allowing the visitors to come no closer than two down the rest of the way, by putting the clamps on Washington’s star guards. UW’s dynamic duo of Kelsey Plum (11 points) and Jazmine Davis (10) was held well below its combined season-long scoring average. Both players expect to score close to double what they produced on Monday night.

That’s a testament to UTEP’s ability to defend well, without fouling, and on a noticeably consistent basis. There wasn’t a single three- or four-minute stretch in the second half when either Plum or Davis was able to break free. Plum finished 4-of-11 from the field, Davis 3-of-11. Moreover, Plum earned only two foul shots. Davis had more to regret on Monday; she got herself to the line, but went just 3-of-8 when she was there. Her misses proved to be crucial, in light of the closeness of the final score.

Talia Walton gave Washington an unexpected lift and kept the Huskies in the game, scoring 22 points.

UTEP, though, had the much more effective and balanced set of contributions from its roster, as Vitola scored 21 and Thornton poured in 20. The Vitola-Thornton combo provided what Plum and Davis could not. UTEP’s bench also made a difference, outscoring Washington’s reserves by a 22-0 count. Jenzel Nash, who has been an essential presence for UTEP in this WNIT tournament, scored 12 off the bench to help the Miners reach the last four in this event.

Coming Up -- Wednesday, April 2 -- 7 p.m. EDT

Semifinal 2 (Bottom Half of WNIT Bracket): Rutgers (26-9) @ South Florida (23-12) -- USF Sun Dome, Tampa, Fla.

Quarterfinal Results - Bottom Half of WNIT Bracket

South Florida 60, Mississippi State 58

Giving a game away is one of the worst feelings high-level athletes can absorb, and on Sunday in Starkville, Miss., the South Florida Bulls appeared to be about to watch their season slip through their fingers.  Fortunately for USF, Courtney Williams was there to save the day, draining a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to lift the Bulls to a 60-58 win over hosting Mississippi State, and allowing them to to escape Humphrey Coliseum with a ticket to the WNIT semifinals.

Entrusted with the ball in a do-or-die situation, Williams rescued South Florida from what had been an ugly late-stage collapse against a determined Mississippi State squad. The win sets up a head-to-head battle between Rutgers and South Florida, two American Athletic Conference bubble teams that were both snubbed by the NCAA Selection Committee, to see which of them will represent the league in Saturday’s WNIT championship game.

Here’s how the drama unfolded before Williams found a last-ditch dagger to pull out the win for USF.

The Bulls were steadily better than the homestanding Bulldogs for most of this game, leading by as many as nine points for most of the first half, until MSU put together a 10-1 run over the final six minutes of the opening period to head to the break with the score tied at 22. The home team nosed ahead early in the second stanza, but were never able to gain separation, leading by no more than two-to-four points until South Florida stiffined its defense and reestablished control in the game's last eight minutes. The Bulls allowed only one made field goal to Mississippi State in span of over six minutes (12:10 to 5:55) midway through the second half.

With 2:40 remaining, South Florida owned a 57-50 lead. Then, however, everything went a little too south for South Florida. With the Bulls settling for jump shots; lofting 3-pointers with more than 10 seconds on the shot clock; committing two turnovers; and allowing baskets to Mississippi State on three consecutive possessions, the Bulldogs were able to climb within one point, at 57-56, heading into the final minute.

With 34 seconds left, Mississipi State's Savannah Carter stole the ball from Williams, and the Bulldogs patiently worked the ball to the rim. MSU's Martha Alwal dropped in the go-ahead layup with five seconds left to cap an 8-0 run and give Mississippi State a 58-57 lead. “The Hump” was rocking.

Improbably, out of a timeout, USF was able to zoom downcourt following the make by Alwal, and Williams tossed in her crowd-silencing dagger at the horn.

Shalethia Stringfield came off the bench to lead South Florida with 20 points. Inga Orekhova added 15; Williams contributed 13, including the game-winner; and Alisia Jenkins chipped in 12 points, plus a team-high eight rebounds.

Kendra Grant scored 22 for Mississippi State while Breanna Richardson delivered a double-double of 14 points and 14 rebounds.

Rutgers 55, Bowling Green 50

In a volatile game that rocked back and forth, the Scarlet Knights trailed by as many as eight points for nearly the entire first half, but rallied in the second, smothering Bowling Green for most of the second half and then withstanding a furious charge from the Falcons to win on the road. Rutgers will now get to face South Florida in a battle for bragging rights; both AAC teams were left on the bad side of the bubble on Selection Monday.

Bowling Green started well, posting a 25-17 lead late in the first half and forcing Rutgers to respond. Scarlet Knights did just that, getting two baskets in the final minutes to create a much more manageable 25-21 deficit at the intermission.

Spurred by that late rally, Rutgers maxed out in the first 12 minutes of the second half. The Scarlet Knights’ defense didn’t allow Bowling Green to breathe. The Falcons were completely flustered, scoring just eight points by the under-eight-minute media timeout. Meanwhile, Rutgers had built a 45-33 lead and appeared to be home free.

Yet, just when the wheels had seemingly fallen off for BGSU, the Falcons unfurled a 9-0 burst to make the score 45-42, Rutgers, with 5:52 to go.

From there, however, it was Rutgers that managed to make the key plays that swung this contest in its favor. Syessence Davis knocked down a jumper that stopped the Bowling Green run and quieted the partisan crowd. Briyona Canty grabbed a steal and Davis got it downcourt to Kahleah Copper for a fastbreak layup, restoring Rutgers to a seven-point (51-44) cushion.

The Scarlet Knights' defense allowed Bowling Green only one basket in the next three minutes, but Bowling Green had one last rally left. With two-and-a-half minutes to go, Erica Donovan and Alexis Rogers knocked down back-to-back layups to cut the deficit back to three points (51-48), but they would get no closer.

In the final minute, Betnijah Laney hit a jumper to give Rutgers a five-point lead. Bowling Green immediately answered with a Rogers layup, and the Falcons did have a chance to tie the game after Copper missed the front end of a one-and-one.

However, Donovan missed what might have been the tying three with seven seconds left, and Tyler Scaife secured the rebound, then made two foul shots to seal the victory.

Copper led Rutgers with 14 points. Scaife added 13 points and five rebounds off the bench, and Canty tacked on 11.

Alexis Rogers posted 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds for Bowling Green. Donovan contributed 12 points and six rebounds, and Jillian Halfhill added 11.