Bulletin Staff Report

ABILENE — The Howard Payne defense rose to the occasion when it was most needed, and the No. 6 Lady Jackets remained undefeated with a 59-54 victory at No. 14 Hardin-Simmons Thursday night.

The Lady Jackets overcame 33 percent shooting and being outrebounded by 17 as they forced 28 turnovers — including 14 steals — and scored 25 points off them.

“That’s why we won the ball game,” said head coach Chris Kielsmeier of the Lady Jackets’ defensive effort. “This is a group of winners. They just found a way because they certainly deserved to win the ball game even though we didn’t play well and didn’t shoot the ball like we could.”

Clinging to a 55-54 lead with 33 seconds left, the Lady Jackets (18-0, 14-0) stole the ball on three straight possessions, preventing Hardin-Simmons (14-3, 12-2) from taking a shot that could have given the Cowgirls their first lead of the second half.

The final two steals were recorded by senior guard Molly Buker — one on an inbounds play following a time out and the other in the front court as the Cowgirls were attempting to set up for a go-ahead shot.

Buker was fouled after both steals and converted all four free throws for her only points of the game. A 57 percent free throw shooter for the season, Buker sank the first two with 21 seconds remaining and the final two with five seconds left on the clock.

“I knew we had to get a stop and we had to get the ball back,” said Buker of the first steal. “I knew if the ball came my way I had to get it. They just passed the ball there and I took off after it and I’m glad I got it.

“On the second steal, Heather (Hohertz) was putting some pressure on the girl with the ball and I knew I had to stay active and read where she was going to pass. When I got it I just took off for the layup.”

The victory was the 18th straight for the Lady Jackets, while the Cowgirls’ win streak was snapped at nine games. The win also keeps Howard Payne alone atop the ASC West standings with a date at No. 13 McMurry (16-2, 13-1) slated for Saturday at 1 p.m.

Junior post Stacey Blalock scored a team-high 17 points for the Lady Jackets, followed by 13 from junior guard Meia Daniels — who became the fifth-leading scorer in Lady Jackets history.

Hardin-Simmons received 13 points from Melissa Contrucci, but no other Cowgirl finished in double figures.

The Cowgirls — who were averaging 77.4 points per game for the season and 78.8 points per game during their win streak — were held to a season-low 54.

Howard Payne trailed 17-9 midway through the first half, but used a 10-1 spurt to grab its first lead, 19-18, with 4:53 left in the first half. A three-pointer by Kristin Hendricks put the Lady Jackets in front, and they went into halftime with a 26-22 advantage.

The lead ballooned to a dozen points, 53-41, with 5:48 left in the game thanks to a baseline jumper by Daphnie Pippins.

But the Cowgirls responded with an 11-0 run and closed the gap to 53-52 on a three-pointer by Lyssa Dennard with just under two minutes left in the game.

Kim Hoffman drained two free throws to put HPU in front by three, but Contrucci again trimmed the deficit to one point with 1:06 left on a put back following an offensive rebound.

“This is a tough place to win and Hardin-Simmons will never go down without a huge fight,” Kielsmeier said.