Bulletin Staff Report

ABILENE — For the last two weeks, the sixth-ranked Howard Payne Lady Jackets have suffered through significant lulls of inconsistency, yet still managed to keep their undefeated record intact. That all ended Saturday afternoon on the same court where their 2005-06 season reached its conclusion.

The Lady Jackets — the last of the unbeatens in NCAA Division III women’s basketball — squandered a 13-point lead with just over eight minutes left as No. 13 McMurry rallied for a 61-60 victory at Kimbrell Arena — the same site where Hardin-Simmons halted Howard Payne’s NCAA tournament run 10 months earlier.

The loss not only snapped Howard Payne’s record 18-game win streak, it allowed McMurry (17-2, 14-1) to pull even with the Lady Jackets (18-1, 14-1) atop the American Southwest Conference West Division standings. Hardin-Simmons (15-3, 13-2) — ranked No. 14 — also climbed back to within a game of first place. The winner of the West will host the ASC championship tournament Feb. 23-25.

“If you get a team down by 13 points with eight minutes left, you should win the ball game. That’s the bottom line,” said Lady Jackets head coach Chris Kielsmeier. “I don’t want to take anything from McMurry. They wanted to win the ball game more than we did and we have to suffer the consequences for it.

“This all started Friday night. We had the worst practice of the season Friday, and it’s funny how things like this go hand-in-hand.”

McMurry junior post Tarra Richardson, who scored a game-high 27 points, sank the winning 6-foot baseline jumper with 14 seconds left.

Howard Payne’s last gasp ended when Meia Daniels attempted to drive the lane for the go-ahead basket with four seconds left. Daniels was stripped of the ball, which was pounced on by McMurry’s Symbri Tuttle as time ran out.

Stacey Blalock converted one of just six Lady Jacket second-half field goals with 33 seconds left to give Howard Payne a 60-59 lead. Blalock’s bucket was the answer to three free throws by Allison Nelson, which gave McMurry a 59-58 advantage with 1:44 left in the game. It also marked the first time the Lady Jackets trailed since the 15:48 mark of the first half.

Saturday’s late collapse followed a recent trend of either poor starts or poor finishes for the Lady Jackets. In Thursday’s 59-54 win at Hardin-Simmons, the Lady Jackets let a 12-point lead shrink to one before three steals in final minute saved the win.

In victories of 77-62 over Mary Hardin-Baylor and 55-48 over Concordia, the Lady Jackets had to overcome deficits midway through the second half of each after not trailing after halftime in any of the previous 14 wins.

“Based on the expectations I have for this group, and the expectations they have for each for other, this team has been complacent the last couple of weeks,” Kielsmeier said. “We’ve been distracted and the drive and the commitment to details hasn’t been there.

“If you look at our last five games we haven’t played very well in any of them. Any time that happens, you have to get to the core of the problem to figure it out. Some of it was the pressure of the streak and some of it was being complacent and it cost us.”

Losing the battle on the glass and ice-cold shooting after halftime — 6-of-21 from the floor in the second half — didn’t help the Lady Jackets’ cause either Saturday.

McMurry finished with 43 rebounds — seven more than HPU — including 20 on the offensive end, which allowed the 13th-ranked team in the nation to attempt 12 more shots than the Lady Jackets in the second half.

“I’ve been telling our team at some point this year it was going to get us,” said Kielsmeier of HPU’s rebounding. “Our rebounding has either been great or it’s been awful, and there’s no other way to put it. (Richardson) is a good player, but she had 11 offensive rebounds and that’s just an embarrassing performance for our program.”

Of the Lady Jackets’ 29 second-half points, only 14 came from the field. The Lady Jackets did make 15 second-half free throws, but after making 17-of-19 to start, Howard Payne hit just 4-of-9 at the charity stripe down the stretch.

“Our offensive execution has not been good lately, and that’s just not us,” Kielsmeier said. “You have to put yourself in a position to win, but when you’re in that position then you have to do it. We messed around and tried to screw the game up on Thursday, too. We’ve got to get refocused and re-energized and find a way to get this up at a high level again.”

The momentum of the game began to shift just before the half when it appeared Howard Payne had opened a 17-point lead. Instead of Heather Hohertz’s driving layup making the score 33-16, she was called for an offensive foul which negated the bucket. Nelson — who finished with 19 points for McMurry — then converted consecutive three-pointers to end the half, and the Lady Jackets’ lead was cut to 31-22 at intermission.

Despite the Lady Jackets’ struggles offensively in the second half, they were able to push the lead back to 13 points, 53-40, on a pair of free throws by Kim Hoffman with 8:12 remaining. Hoffman led the Lady Jackets with 18 points, including 10 from the charity stripe.

With 3:24 left, Howard Payne’s advantage still appeared comfortable at 57-50, but McMurry’s second-leading scorer Maigen Sawyer converted a traditional three-point play for her first points of the game, then Nelson drained another three-pointer to shave the Lady Jackets’ lead to 57-56 at the 2:46 mark.

The Lady Jackets still control their destiny in the ASC West race, and Hardin-Simmons and McMurry will be coming to the Brownwood Coliseum on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, for two crucial conference battles.

“It’s all right there in front of us,” Kielsmeier said. “Anything we want to accomplish is there for the taking. If this group wants it bad enough, they’ll find a way. We didn’t today, but this group is a group of winners and I believe they’ll find a way.”