FORT WAYNE, Ind. --The No. 1-ranked team in the country had their most impressive first half of the season as Indiana Wesleyan University rolled right by No. 24-ranked University of Saint Francis (Ind.) tonight for a 74-59 victory in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Indiana Wesleyan (25-2, 14-1 MCC) shot an incredible 81.0-percent (17 of 21) in the opening 20 minutes en route to a 41-28 lead at halftime. Pacing IWU in the first half was junior forward Paige Smith with 16 points and junior guard Claire Freeman with 11 points.
"Our kids ran some sets and had some really good execution. I thought the perimeter players kept finding Claire and Paige inside for good shots. When we play that way offensively it makes us hard to guard," said Indiana Wesleyan head coach Steve Brooks. "We wanted to establish ourselves right away. They struggled to guard us inside. Paige came in and really gave us a lift. Krystal was battling and Claire did a lot."
The Indiana Wesleyan win over Saint Francis (17-10, 9-6 MCC) coupled with a Huntington (Ind.) University victory over No. 12-ranked Bethel (Ind.) College tonight means Indiana Wesleyan has clinched at least a share of the Mid-Central College Conference regular season championship. With three games remaining in the season, one Indiana Wesleyan victory or one Bethel loss will result in the outright championship for IWU.
"That's great but that's not what we're playing for," said Brooks. "But hopefully we can keep this momentum going."
The Wildcats built all kinds of momentum with 13 minutes remaining in the first half. IWU led 11-10 before an 18-0 put the game out of reach. The Wildcats held a 29-10 lead with 7:56 remaining. Smith paced the stretch with 10 points in that time. She would finish with 16 in the first half and would tie her career-high with 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting.
"Paige came in ready to compete," stated Brooks. "It's a big positive for us."
After building the 19 point lead, the largest of the game, the Wildcats were never seriously threatened the rest of the night. Saint Francis would get no closer than 12 points the rest of the way.
"I thought we played extremely hard," said Brooks. "It's a hard play for us to play but I thought our kids came out and played very hard. We moved our feet and did some good things defensively. They might grab a little momentum but the next time we came down and got a stop. That was big."
Indiana Wesleyan shot 60.5-percent (26 of 43) tonight and 41.7-percent (5 of 12) from deep. IWU also shot well from the free throw line at 81.0-perent (17 of 21).
Three other Wildcats joined Smith in double figures tonight. Senior guard Rachel Steinbarger earned a season-high 16 points while Freeman contributed 11 points and senior center Krystal Stoneking added 10.
"People forget about her Rachel. She is an x-factor," added Brooks. "She guards, handles the ball, sees the floor, and shoots the ball well. She has started all four years here. She rebounds and battles you for everything you got. She's a player. She needs to do what she's has been doing. It makes us a harder team to guard."
Indiana Wesleyan can clinch the outright MCC title on Saturday with a home date against Bethel. The game is at 1 p.m. in Luckey Arena. It is a ‘Pink Out' game for cancer awareness. Money will be collected and donated to the Cancer Services of Grant County.