The Western Illinois women’s basketball team played its 5th Summit League matchup on Sunday, January 12, playing host to Denver. The Pioneers broke out quickly from the tip off, storming to a 20-8 lead roughly midway through the first quarter. WIU battled back from that point on, ending the quarter down just 21-15 and finishing the first half up 43-37, completing a 35-17 run from the 3:08 mark of the first quarter. WIU faced a stiff second half battle from Denver that saw Olivia Kaufmann, Evan Zars and Grace Gilmore take hard fouls in the head/face area, but ultimately prevailed 82-75.
So physical was the second half of play that Denver was assessed two intentional fouls, both taken by Gilmore, in the fourth quarter alone. Gilmore would leave the game late with what appeared to be a hip injury, but does not appear to have picked up anything long-term. After a bit of a bounce-back performance shooting the ball against Purdue-Fort Wayne, the Leathernecks fell right back into the pattern of struggling with their shot, finishing with percentages of 42% from the field and 26% from 3, though they did importantly shoot 80% from the free throw line. In a way though, this win proved what many doubted, which was an ability for WIU to score and, more importantly, win when their shots are not falling. The key for them, certainly in Summit play, appears to be drawing fouls and getting to the line. In 2 of their 3 league wins, they have attempted at least 20 free throws, including 33 trips to the line in the 2OT win over North Dakota State.
Olivia Kaufmann was a huge part of that success at the free throw line, as she not only finished 9-10 overall from the line, but crucially knocked down all 4 of the intentional free throws in the fourth quarter. She added to that line with 24 points, 3 assists and a very impressive 10 rebounds, considering her size and the physicality of the game. She never seems to shy away from a battle. There was a nice moment before the game for the senior guard as well, as she earned recognition for becoming Head Coach J.D. Gravina’s 6th player under his watch to join the 1000 point club. WIU alum and all-time leading scorer Taylor Higginbotham was on hand to celebrate the occasion. Zars recorded a 12 point, 10 rebound double-double, while Gilmore, Danni Nichols, Sam Pryor and Elizabeth Lütz each recorded double figure scoring totals to round out the box score for the Leathernecks. Uju Ezudu and Meghan Boyd led the way for Denver, with Ezudu dominating on the block to the tune of a 19 point, 14 rebound performance and Boyd performing a masterclass from long range with a 17 point performance on 5 made 3s.
The Leathernecks (9-9, 3-2) will next host Oral Roberts on Saturday, January 18, with a tip off there scheduled for 4:30 PM. Meanwhile, Denver (7-11, 1-4) will return home to take on Omaha on Saturday the 18 as well, with a tip scheduled for 4:30 PM Central Time (3:30 Denver time).