Bowling Green State University coach Curt Miller said after his team's 56-47 win over University of Arkansas - Little Rock in the first game of the Seattle University Thanksgiving Tournament that the game was as good as advertised.
"It was a great match up - it was a great team match up," said Miller, whose team is now 5-1 on the season. "It was a good game - I think it was as advertised. And, you know, there's not enough credit around the country for mid-major basketball and that's a good game."
That was definitely true in terms of the level of competitiveness and intensity, however neither of the prolific scorers in the game had nights to remember -- UALR's Chastity Reed was 4-15 in the first half while BGSU's Lauren Prochaska was 1-7.
Yet to say Prochaska got off to rough start is probably an understatement - due to a combination of airballs, well-contested shots, and bad rolls, Prochaska didn't even draw iron in the first eight minutes of the game and didn't hit a field goal until she made a three pointer with 7:42 left in the first half that brought BGSU within six and sort of ignited a run that began a shift of momentum in the game.
And through it all, Prochaska's expectations for herself and instructions from her coach were clear: keep shooting.
"I think every day in practice coach always tells me, 'Keep shooting, keep shooting," said Prochaska, who finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds. "That's the way you get out of shooting slumps - keep shooting. Just keep shooting the ball and eventually you'll make one and you can go from there. So I think that was the big thing for him - to make sure I kept shooting the ball."
In a game between two of the top mid-major programs in the nation, the struggles of each team's star player ended up simultaneously defining the game and demonstrating what makes them great scorers to begin with - they never backed down, no matter how many consecutive shots they had missed or how many different looks the defense gave them. Ironically, it made for a great duel of wills, partially because they showed amazing resilience to remain aggressive despite continued failure and partially because they each ended up as their respective team's high scorer despite stretches of ice cold shooting.
"It was such a great individual matchup because Reed and Prohaska played against each other," said Miller. "They're two of the decorated mid-major players in the country and Lauren took that on as a challenge. And I think that they both had their moments but you can see how talented both of them are. And I think they're both capable of having better games - they both didn't shoot good percentages, but I think that's a credit to each other on how hard they defended each other and made it hard on each other."
But it was ultimately Prochaska who managed to win the individual battle of star players.
Key player: Lauren Prochaska
While Prochaska failed to make a field goal in the first 12 minutes of the game, she certainly found other ways to contribute. She finished with a strong defensive rebounding percentage of 24.71% and only turned the ball over once in the process of driving through traffic for shots.
But most importantly, Prochaska found some solace at the free throw line hitting 15 of 15 attempts for a free throw rate of 88.23%. So while she did keep shooting her ability to get to the line repeatedly - and knock those attempts down - helped her remain a significant part of the game. It's both the result of relentlessly attacking the defense and almost skillfully finding ways to draw contact when nothing else was working.
"Well, we're just going to keep going to her," said Miller. "And we know that even though she wasn't making shots, she was getting herself to the foul line and she's such a prolific foul shooter. But she made a couple of big ones down the stretch to help seal it and that's what she is: she's a big time player."
Prochaska's strong free throw rate was also a significant part of what kept the team in the game overall.
Key statistic: free throw rate
It's not often that a team can win a game while shooting 28.8% and allowing the opponents to shoot almost 10% better. Certainly, UALR turning the ball over on 38% of their second half possessions and allowing BGSU to finish with a 15-0 advantage in second half points off turnovers contributed to the loss. However, it was BGSU's free throw shooting that was the most consistent statistical factor that allowed them to pull this one out.
"We had to be aggressive and keep going at them and draw those fouls because we were able to get into the bonus in the first half and shoot a lot of foul shots," said Prochaska. "So that was a big part of our offense tonight was getting there and making those shots. So we had to be aggressive to draw those type of fouls."
While BGSU finished with a free throw rate of 54%, UALR finished with a free throw rate of 19% and the biggest reason was that attacking mindset that Prochaska showed. Although BGSU did shoot more threes than UALR, inside the arc they spent a lot more time driving to the basket instead of settling for long jumpers. And that attacking mentality carried over to their rebounding as well, where they had 6 second half offensive boards that translated into an 8-0 advantage in second chance points.
"One of the questions I had for this team is when we didn't make shots, could we find a way to win, either with our defense or with getting to the foul line or getting second chance points," said Miller. "Tonight that was answered: we didn't make shots that we were capable of making. A lot of that is attributed to their defense, but we found a way to win - we played good enough defense and that's a huge win for our program."
Yet beyond Prochaska's scoring aggression and ability to find her way to the line, on a night in which neither star shot very well, it fell on the shoulders of teammates to step in and fill the void. And while you can't really call a player like Tracy Pontius a "supporting cast member" as though she isn't a talented player in her own right, she made huge plays when her team needed them to help win this one.
Bowling Green statistical MVP: Tracy Pontius
To be fair, Pontius didn't exactly think she had a great game.
"I don't think I played very well tonight, personally," said Pontius brushing off a question about her 18 point, 6 rebound, 4 steal and 4 assist performance.
And really that says way more about the standard she hold herself to than her actual performance as the floor leader who steadied the team while their star was having an off night.
With Prochaska continuing to demand the attention of the defense - and for the most part, spectators - Pontius stepped up single-handedly catalyzed runs that helped BGSU build and maintain a lead. Although she might not have thought much of her performance, it was one of those games when she was the player that always seemed to be in the middle of making something positive happen on both ends of the floor.
After assisting Prochaska on that that first three pointer she made to take the lid off the rim, she proceeded to lead BGSU's run with seven straight points over a three minute period to tie the game at 20 each with 3:25 left in the first half. It began with a layup from just attacking the basket, then consecutive steals, one of which she ended up nailing a three from the left wing and another that she took to the basket for a three point play opportunity.
It was the same story in the second half, just with slightly different plot twists. With the game tied at 44 after more Prochaska free throws with 5:46 left, Pontius nailed a three from about three feet beyond the arc to put BGSU up three. On the next possession she fed forward Allison Pappenfuss for a layup that put BGSU up 49-44 with 4:30 left. Then with a minute left, Pontius essentially put the game away - after a steal and setting up Prochaska for a missed three, Pontius beat every UALR player to the offensive rebound from beyond the arc, restarted the offense, and ended up hitting the nail-in-the-coffin three with a minute left that put BGSU up 8 points and sealed the game.
You get the point: whether she acknowledges it as a good performance or not, Pontius almost single-handedly got BGSU back into the game and sealed it in the end. As fun as it was to watch, it's what she and her coach have come to expect.
"She's certainly capable of making shots so we want to put the ball in her hands and let her step up and make shots," said Miller.
Although her numbers as a distributor weren't particularly outstanding, her true shooting percentage of 55.97% was second on the team on a poor shooting night, her free throw rate of 53.84% was above average and higher than anyone on UALR's roster, and her four steals - as described above - were critical to shifting the momentum of the game.
As good as Pontius was, it wasn't so much that UALR was without a comparable secondary player to fall back on, it's just that she was limited by foul trouble.
Arkansas-Little Rock statistical MVP: Asriel Rolfe
Rolfe stands out statistically primarily because she was the most efficient player on a rather inefficient night for UALR - although she didn't have any assists, she also committed no turnovers and finished with a true shooting percentage of 87.5%.
But what doesn't show up in the boxscore is Rolfe's very physical defense that definitely took some getting used to for BGSU guards - she had active hands, was in the face of BGSU ballhandlers, and briefly took time to guard Prochaska.
Unfortunately, that also led to Rolfe picking up three fouls in the first half which led to her having to sit on the bench for large portions of BGSU's first half run, including Pontius' period of consecutive steals in addition to having to sit for most of the second half after picking up her fourth foul with 18:33 left in the second half.
"We knew they were going to be very, very tough on-ball defenders and that we had to keep attacking and see if we could get some of the hand check calls and see if we could get to the foul line," said Miller. "We are a very talented foul shooting team - in the first half, we missed a lot of foul shots so in the second half we came out and we went 12-14 and really buckled down that way. But free throws were a big difference tonight - they were in foul trouble and it kept their rotation a little different that their used to."
As much as Reed's shooting had an impact on this game (she finished with 18 points on 7-23 shooting in addition to 11 rebounds), the game flow might also suggest that Rolfe's foul trouble - and losing her defensive intensity on the perimeter - had as big, if not a bigger, impact on the outcome of the game.
Round Two: BGSU to the championship game, UALR to consolation
If Rolfe can stay out of foul trouble in UALR's consolation game against Montana State today at 6 p.m. PST, they have a very good chance of winning - Seattle U forced MSU into a number of turnovers and Rolfe is probably among the most aggressive defenders in the tournament. And Little Rock is as physical as any team you'll see.
"You gotta give a lot of credit to Arkansas - Little Rock," said Miller. "They're so physical. We came into the game wondering if we could handle that physicality."
On paper, Seattle University certainly appears to be an easier opponent for BGSU in the championship game following the consolation at approximately 8 p.m., but there's no doubt that in playing at the Connolly Center in front of Redhawks fans the Falcons will want to shoot better overall if they hope to win. One area of necessary improvement will be their post play - Pontius and Prochaska accounted for 88% of the team's overall statistical production last night, which is represents a lack of balance.
"These games are going to help us and we gotta be tough," said Miller. "But certainly tonight we made one basket by a post player all night. And I don't think you can live an entire season-long depending solely on guard scoring. So we've gotta get more production out of the post, we gotta get them going. But Little Rock took that away from us tonight and our guards kept attacking and they were the scorers tonight. But we've gotta have more balance and we've gotta find some post scoring in order for us to be successful in the long run."
But for a few hours last night, at least, they were able to enjoy a big early season win.
"It was a big game for two mid-major programs that have done well over the years," said Prochaska. "So this was an important game for us so we took it seriously and that was a big game. So I think we're really excited right now and we'll enjoy this for the rest of the night, but tomorrow we have to turn around and prepare for the next game."