MARION, Ind. -- The No. 1-ranked Indiana Wesleyan University women's basketball team clinched the outright Mid-Central College Conference regular season championship on Saturday with a 60-53 victory over No. 12-ranked Bethel (Ind.) College in Luckey Arena.
Indiana Wesleyan finished their run to the regular season title with two games still remaining on the schedule. IWU improves to 15-1 in the MCC while Bethel, who is second in the standings, falls to 11-5.
"There was a lot on the line for them and there was a lot on the line for us today," said Indiana Wesleyan head coach Steve Brooks. "We answered the bell. It wasn't pretty but we got it done. That is one goal we set, to win the regular season championship. Now we are going to strive to get healthy and try to get ready for the conference tournament. We need to work on things to get better to meet everybody's challenge for the third time."
The conference championship is the ninth in program history and the eighth under Brooks. Indiana Wesleyan has claimed eight of the last 11 regular season crowns, including the last three.
Things did not look so bright early for the Wildcats. The Pilots scored the first seven points of the contest and never trailed during the opening half. BC led by as many as eight points (18-10) in the half and went into halftime leading 27-21.
"The first half came down to us just not coming out with a mentality to go to war and they were," added Brooks. "They were ready to go, they lost two games in a row and this is a big deal. I don't think mentally we were as sharp as we needed to be in the first half. I'm a little surprised by it but I'm also proud of the kids because they persevered."
Bethel scored the first three points of the second half to gain their largest lead of the afternoon at 30-21. But the lead would grow no larger for Bethel as the tides of the game changed in favor of Indiana Wesleyan.
The next 12 minutes were dictated by Indiana Wesleyan. IWU outscored Bethel 30-10 in that span and turned a nine point deficit into an 11 point cushion at 51-40. Keying the run was the outside shooting by IWU as four Wildcats combine to hit six 3-pointers.
"At halftime we said our defense affects our offense," stated Indiana Wesleyan senior guard Ashley Brooks. "So when we get some stops I think it builds our confidence. So we stepped up. In the first half we were shooting those shots and just not making them. But we came back out with more confidence and hit the 3's in the second half."
Bethel finally responded with the next seven points to narrow the deficit to 53-49 with 1:30 remaining. BC was forced to begin fouling but would get no closer than four. Indiana Wesleyan hit 5-of-6 free throws in the final 49 seconds to secure the top-25 victory.
"We finally did some things where we got stops and then hit some timely 3's," said Steve Brooks. "When we did that I thought we played more like we had been playing of late. It gave us a chance to get away from them."
After shooting just 34.8-percent (8 of 23) in the first 20 minutes the Wildcats were a completely different team in the second half, shooting 61.9-percent (13 of 21) from the floor, including 46.2-percent (6 of 13) from beyond the arc. Indiana Wesleyan earned assists on 19 of their 21 field goals.
Senior center Krystal Stoneking led all scorers on Saturday with 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting. She was 5-of-7 from the foul line and collected six rebounds. Brooks was 6-of-7 from the field for 14 points plus six boards while junior guard Claire Freeman added 10 points and six assists.
Bethel entered play ranked in the NAIA Division II top-10 in 3-Pointers Made per Game (8.2) and 3-Pointers Made (212). But Indiana Wesleyan, which is fifth in the nation in 3-Point FG Defense (25.3-percent), won the key battle as Bethel shot just 17.6-percent from deep on 3-of-17 shooting.
"The 3 point shot is something we stress and we don't want teams to get because there are a lot of really good 3-point shooters in our conference," said Ashley Brooks. "With the kind of defense we play, it's ok if somebody comes off the dribble because we are going to have help. But you really can't get the help on the 3. So we just tried to come at them today."
The game was a 'Pink Out' for breast cancer awareness. Both teams wore pink t-shirts during warm-ups and Indiana Wesleyan wore pink socks during the game. Indiana Wesleyan Dean of the Chapel, Dr. Jim Lo, spoke during halftime before buckets were passed around the crowd for donations. All donations were given to the Cancer Services of Grant County.
Indiana Wesleyan takes to the road their next time out with a game at Grant County rival Taylor (Ind.) University on Wednesday, February 15. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
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