LUBBOCK, Texas — Three Rivers started its quarterfinal game against Western Nebraska 1 for 10 shooting but was only down by three points.
Woe onto the Cougars should the Raiders find their form.
Find their form they did. Three Rivers hit three 3-pointers in the final minute of the first quarter to take the lead and built a 19-point lead at halftime. Western Nebraska got within a point in the fourth quarter, but the Raiders held on to win 79-71, advancing to the final four of the NJCAA National Tournament.
"Down the stretch, we made enough plays, we got enough stops, we finally moved on offense and got the ball in the hole a little bit," Three Rivers coach Alex Wiggs said. "We knew they were going to make a run. We watched them play the last two days and they are a very talented, very skilled team. One thing on the scouting report was their toughness."
The Raiders will face No. 5 Northwest Florida State in the semifinals at 4 p.m. Friday. This is the first time in program history Three Rivers has reached the final four.
"It's exciting. It justifies all the hard work we put in this year. So it's exciting and we're ready to play," Abby Turner said. "I think we're all ready (for Friday) because this is the first time we've made it this far."
Three Rivers shot 27.8% in the first quarter and 42.9% in the second to build its lead.
"We knew we needed to come out and put the pressure on them because they were going to come back and fight," Turner said.
In the second half, Western Nebraska quickly cut the Raider lead back to single digits after the Raiders only made three field goals in the third quarter.
The Cougars got within three points with 8 minutes left in the game but never did take the lead.
"We fight, we want it more, so I didn't have a doubt about that," Autumn Dodd said.
Jamiyah Thomas missed Tuesday's game with a knee injury, but returned Thursday and led the Raiders with 18 points off the bench. She was 5 for 10 shooting, 8 for 8 on free throws, and had to be helped to the bus after the game, struggling to put weight on her injured knee.
"I think it was the help of my trainer. We did some exercises before the game and wrapped it up so I was able to play," Thomas said. "It would hurt at times, but then I would have a quick sub and stretch a little bit, and I was ready to go again."
She and Abby Turner took turns guarded Cougar forward Lidsey Mahoukou after Western Nebraska was forced to turn to the post.
"It was a battle down there. She was trying to post everybody up and we just had to keep denying it," Thomas said.
A 6-foot, 3-inch center, Mahoukou led the Cougars with 19 points on 7 for 10 shooting with seven rebounds.
"We played the way we normally do, and we didn't change anything up because we knew they were going to look somewhere else," Turner said.
The Cougars turned to Mahoukou because the Raider guards locked up leading scorer Alejah Douglas.
Averaging 18.4 points per game to lead the team, Douglas had 17 points in the first round against Iowa Western, and against top-seeded Jones, she had 19 points in the first half and finished with 27 on 50% shooting.
The Raiders didn't allow her a single point until the third quarter. She ultimately finished 4 for 13 shooting and 2 for 6 on 3-pointers for 11 points.
It was Douglas' second-worst shooting performance of the season.
"Our defense is just really good," Dodd said. "It's fun going into a game and somebody is supposed to go in on you and you shut them down. That's the best feeling."
The Raider bench scored 48 points compared to 22 for Western Nebraska. Kierra Thornton was plus-20 off the bench to lead Three Rivers in plus-minus and the Raider bench was collectively plus-60 while the Western Nebraska bench was minus-40.
Dodd, also off the bench, had 14 points and four rebounds on 50% shooting. Hya Haywood started got 11 points.
Myia Yelder didn't score until 3 minutes left in the game and was 0 for 7 from the field, but had five steals, four assists and seven rebounds.
It was Yelder on the free-throw line late, and she was 7 for 10 from the line late to close it out.
The Raiders were 25-31 (80.6%) on free throws while Western Nebraska, leading the nation in free-throw shooting at 76.1%, finished 10 for 13 (76.9%).
Ashley Panem, who had to be helped to the locker room after hitting the back of her head on Mahoukou's knee in the second quarter and returned in the second half, had 14 points and seven rebounds for the Cougars. Payton Field had 11 points and Bella Paraco got 10 rebounds and no points.
Scott Borkgren - Daily American Republic