Tears flowed from players and fans after UTD fell to George Fox 77-73 in the third round of the NCAA tournament on March 13.
Coming into the game, George Fox boasted a 29-0 record, one of the best in the nation.
Head coach Polly Thomason said UTD would have to try to limit the threes they gave up to George Fox if they wanted to win.
“They’re good at driving and kicking out,” she said. “That’s really going to be our focus defensively, see if we can stop the ball and get to the shooters as quick as we can.”
The Bruins opened up the first-half pushing their well-oiled offensive machine into high gear, breaking off a 12-6 lead in the first 5 minutes.
What they weren’t prepared for was the response from the Comets. UTD came back swinging, clawing their way to a 29-22 lead with just under 6 minutes left to go in the first half. They did this following the lead of senior guard Iemah Wallace-Perry, who in only her third start of the season, picked up 11 points in the first-half. She was 3 of 9 from the field and hit all four of her shots from the charity stripe
A big surprise for the Comets was the offensive play of sophomore forward Madison Steele, who averages only 4.9 points per game. In the first half alone, Steele picked up 8 points, going 3 of 3 from the field and shooting 100% from the free-throw line.
Defensively, UTD forced to Bruins to shoot only 27.3% from beyond the arc. From the field, George Fox only managed to go 14 of 37 shooting.
As the half wore on, however, the Bruins were able to shake off the shock of finally playing a team that fought back and closed out the half leading 37-35.
Both teams came out fighting in the second half. The lead bounded back and forth 13 times as both teams got into an offensive groove coming back to play the final period.
Steele continued her offensive production, picking up 6 more points to finish the game with a team high 14 points. Senior forward Ashley Shaw also stood out in the second-half as she maneuvered through the paint to pick up 9 out her 11 total points in the final period.
Another player who stood out for the Comets was senior guard Amber Brown. After picking up 6 points in the first, Brown was able to go 2 of 3 from the field and hit 100% from the free-throw line to finish with 13 points for the game.
“We just had to adjust to their defense and keep attacking the basket like we’re good at,” she said. “Some (shots) fell, some didn’t.”
As the game came to a close, the Bruins’ defense started to chip away at UTD’s offensive capabilities. They utilized a nasty full-court press to help them force the Comets to turn the ball over 10 times in the second half.
Senior guard Madi Hess, who finished the game with 6 points, said it was difficult to adjust to the pressure they were seeing on the floor.
“It’s nothing we’ve never seen, I think we just kind of got a little nervous,” she said. “It took us about until halftime to realize that it was nothing that we haven’t seen. Once we started breaking the press, everything started getting better…I don’t know, it’s a good defense.”
Despite their struggles to hold on to the ball, the Comets trailed only by 4 heading into the final minute of the game. After a missed layup by Wallace-Perry, Shaw snagged a rebound and was fouled going up for the shot. She hit both free-throws to put UTD within one point with 43 seconds left to play.
After a foul by Brown, the Bruins hit both free-throws to put George Fox up 76-73 with 26 seconds left to play. UTD advanced the ball up the court and passed it to Shaw in the paint, who appeared to get fouled as she was going up for the shot.
UTD’s surprisingly large crowd cheered, but officials then called Shaw for a charging foul. Fans were visibly upset at the call as it took away the last real chance for the Comets to keep themselves in the game.
“I don’t really have a comment to that to be honest with you,” Thomason said. “That’s just the call (the official) made and that’s the one we just have to live with.”
The Bruins took possession of the ball and UTD was forced to immediately foul. George Fox went only 1 of 2 on the ensuing free throws to go up 77-73, but with just 7 seconds left, the damage had been done. The Comets scrambled up the floor and Hess heaved a failed three-pointer in desperation as the final buzzer rang on UTD’s season.
After the two teams shook hands, Comet fans gave their team a standing ovation as team members tearfully gathered in the middle of the court for one last huddle.
Several players were visibly emotional as they embraced their parents and loved ones after the game. Thomason also fought back tears as she struggled to describe her thoughts after the loss.
“I don’t know what to say to the team who gives you everything they have, everyday and trusts you with everything you tell them to do and need them to do and a team that you love to death,” she said. “I don’t know what to say to them when you lose a game like this, a game that we definitely had lots of opportunities to win.”
Despite the loss, UTD finished with a 26-5 record, the best in program history. Their journey to the Sweet Sixteen was the team’s best finish in the NCAA tournament.
Thomason said she was proud of what the team had done over the course of the season.
“I’m really proud of what they’ve accomplished and who they are,” she said. “This team is special to me. It’s like I’ve said a million times, it’s not because of the wins, it’s because of who they are and our relationships that we have off the court and I love them to death. I know it’s tough and it hurts for them right now, but they’re going to be able to look back on this in a little while and be proud of what they accomplished and how they represented our university.”