BECKLEY, W.Va. — The University of Rio Grande had an opportunity to forge a tie with West Virginia University-Tech for the best record in the River States Conference East Division, as well as the best record in the league overall.
Unfortunately, though, some serious offensive damage over the middle two quarters allowed the Golden Bears to grab a stranglehold on the inside track toward a division title and conference regular season championship, while also buckling themselves into the driver’s seat in regard to both.
Rio Grande sliced a 21-point third quarter deficit down to just six twice in the final three minutes, but Tech weathered the RedStorm comeback bid en route to an eventual 102-89 win, Thursday night, at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center.
WVU-Tech improved to 14-6 overall and 7-0 in conference play with the win – its eight consecutive victory and third straight triumph over Rio in the all-time series between the two schools.
The RedStorm, who lost for the second time in three outings on the heels of a six-game winning streak, slipped to 12-8 overall and 5-2 in the RSC – two full games behind the Golden Bears for the RSC East lead and the league’s top record.
The team with the best regular season conference record earns one of the RSC’s two bids to the NAIA Division II National Championship Tournament. WVU-Tech is the league’s lone unbeaten squad, while Rio and West Division leader Midway University have two conference losses each.
Rio Grande enjoyed a 20-15 lead following a conventional three-point play by freshman Lexi Woods (Waverly, OH) with 2:26 remaining in the opening quarter, but the Golden Bears responded with a 28-8 run over the next 10 minutes for a 43-28 lead of their own after a three-pointer by Kathylee Pinnock-Branford with 3:27 left before halftime.
Tech finished the half with a 14-point advantage, 53-39, and continued to pull away in the third period, taking a 21-point cushion, 75-54, after a pair of Brianna Ball free throws with 3:05 remaining in the quarter.
The Golden Bears, who scored 63 of their 102 points in the middle two stanzas, still enjoyed a 20-point edge, 86-66, after a Pinnock-Branford jumper with 9:15 left to play in the contest before Rio Grande began to mount a furious comeback attempt.
The RedStorm closed the gap to 90-84 following a pair of free throws by sophomore Avery Harper (Seaman, OH) with 2:45 remaining and again found themselves within six, 92-86, after a bucket by Woods with 1:43 left.
But that’s as close as the rally would get.
WVU Tech went 10-for-10 at the free throw line in the final two minutes – including a 6-for-6 showing by Pinnock-Branford – to fuel a game-ending 10-3 run which sealed the win.
Pinnock-Branford scored a career-high 23 points to lead the Golden Bears in the winning effort. She also finished with eight rebounds and seven assists.
Brittney Justice added 20 points for Tech, while Whittney Justice scored 16 points, Alexandria Gray had 15 and Ball finished with 12. Whittney Justice and Ball shared game-high honors with nine rebounds and Gray tallied a game-high five steals.
Woods had a career-high 31 points and five assists in a losing cause for Rio Grande – her second career-best scoring performance in the club’s last two games.
Harper and junior Chyna Chambers (Columbus, OH) had 15 points each for the RedStorm, while senior Sydney Holden (Wheelersburg, OH) finished with 10 points. Harper had a team-high seven rebounds, while Chambers also seven assists, four steals and a pair of blocked shots.
Rio Grande returns to action next Tuesday when it closes out a four-game road trip at Asbury University.
Tipoff is set for 5:30 p.m. at the Luce Activities Center in Wilmore, Ky.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.