by Philip Dowden
A theme of the month of March several decades old, survive and advance. That is exactly what the Evangel women’s basketball team did on Wednesday night.
The Crusaders outlasted Culver-Stockton 74-69 in the Heart Conference Tournament Quarterfinals to advance to Friday night’s Semifinal Round. Evangel will head to top seed Central Methodist for the third meeting with the Eagles after splitting the regular-season series with road wins for each team.
After building a 36-39 lead at halftime, the Crusaders saw their lead slip away in the final minutes of regulation only to have a chance at a buzzer-beater. Bayley Harman’s 35-foot attempt was online but just rimed out with the score tied 62-62.
“I am proud of the girls for stepping up at critical times tonight,” said head coach Megan Leuzinger who reaches the 20-win mark in her second season after reaching 19 a year ago. “We came out of the gate strong, and then had some lapses at times. I am thankful we were able to finish strong in overtime.”
Evangel and Culver-Stockton went back and forth in overtime until Lexie Vaught took over with 1:59 on the clock. Vaught would hit a jumper to push the Evangel lead to 68-66 before taking a Wildcat turnover and getting fouled with 1:38 left.
Vaught made both free throws before freshman Alexis Cauthon delivered the dagger. A three-pointer in the corner with 56 seconds left gave Evangel a 73-68 lead and all the momentum. Vaught finished with a game-high 23 points, while Cauthon added 20 points.
“Lexie stepped up huge for us and hit crucial shots when we needed her too,” added Leuzinger. “I am proud of each and every girl on the team.”
Vaught was just shy of her second triple-double against the Wildcats as well finishing with nine assists and seven rebounds.
Evangel finished 21 of 26 from the free throw line to help overcome a cold-shooting second half.
Harman finished with just five points but pulled down nine boards and recorded four steals for Evangel. Emma Lander also finished in double figures with 11 points.
Culver-Stockton was led by Ryan Dooley who finished with 14 points and five rebounds.
In her second year Leuzinger reaches the 20-win and advances in the Heart Conference Tournament for the first time.
“We get another chance to keep our season alive,” said Leuzinger who also picks up her first career post-season victory.
Evangel and Central Methodist will tipoff at 7 p.m. Friday in Fayette, Missouri, with the winner advancing to Monday’s Heart Championship game.