Norse Women Improve in Second D-I Season, Await Possible Post-Season Berth
Melody Doss and Kayla Thacker combined to score 40 points on Saturday to lead the Northern Kentucky University women's basketball team to a 58-50 victory over East Tennessee State University on senior day at The Bank of Kentucky Center to conclude Atlantic Sun Conference play.
Doss led NKU, which finished the regular season with a 17-12 overall record and a 13-5 mark in the Atlantic Sun, with 25 points and six rebounds. She went 7-for-7 from the free-throw line, knocked down two 3-pointers and blocked two shots for the Norse.
"I thought she gave us a major boost offensively, did a lot of good things for us and defensively, she kept working to keep it out of their post kids' hands," NKU head coach Dawn Plitzuweit said. "They have some very strong, very athletic post players, and I thought she really worked hard to keep it out of their hands."
Thacker, who was honored in a pregame ceremony as the team's lone senior, added 15 points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals in her final regular-season game in The Bank of Kentucky Center in front of a crowd of 1,003. She connected on four 3-pointers and finished with one blocked shot.
"Kayla has done just about everything that there is to do for our program in terms of on the basketball court and off," Plitzuweit said. "She is someone who is a leader in the classroom and someone who, from a basketball standpoint, is asked to defend the kid on the other team who is playing really well, their key scorer or key component to their offense.
"Offensively, Kayla is someone who handles the ball for us, someone who gets down the court, someone who is able to shoot the ball, puts it on the floor, and gets to the rim. But, she is also someone who really creates a lot of possessions for us by getting offensive rebounds and deflecting a lot of passes defensively. I think where she has continued to grow this year is in her confidence on the court and the way she communicates with her teammates."
Rianna Gayheart broke a 4-all tie early in the first half with a 3-point basket from the top of the key. After both teams traded points over the next couple possessions, the Norse used a 15-0 run to take a 29-10 lead with 4:03 left in the half. A layup by Maria Bond broke the scoring drought for ETSU, but NKU continued to stretch its lead for a 34-20 advantage into the break.
The Norse shot 44.8 percent from the field in opening 20 minutes and went 7-for-15 from behind the 3-point arc. NKU held ETSU to 37.5 percent from the floor to open the game and kept the Bucs from hitting a shot from long range before the break.
ETSU scored eight quick points, including two 3-pointers from Shamauria Bridges, out of halftime to pull to within 34-28 less than three minutes into the second half. Thacker, however, stopped the run with a trey of her own to stretch the Norse lead to 37-28 with 17:28 remaining.
Tiana Burley converted a layup on the other end of the court before a four-point play by Thacker regained a double-digit lead for the Norse at 41-30 with 13:04 on the clock.
ETSU later held NKU scoreless over seven-minute span to come to within four at 46-42 on a pair of free throws by Bridges with just under five minutes left to play. Doss ended the drought with two free throws to give the Norse a 48-42 lead with 4:39 remaining in the game.
Bond cut the NKU advantage to 48-44 with a layup on the next possession, but a Gayheart layup after a Kaitlyn Gerrety block and an inside basket by Doss extended the score to 52-44 for the Norse with 1:51 left on the clock.
With under a minute remaining to play, Chandler Christopher converted her two attempts from the free-throw line to come to within 52-46, but NKU connected on six shots from the charity stripe to hold on for the victory.
"I thought that was a great battle, a great test for our young ladies," Plitzuweit said. "They responded very well and kept their composure throughout the entire course of the game. I thought we got some very good shots in the second half, and unfortunately, they weren't falling for us and we weren't getting offensive rebounds. It's hard to grab offensive rebounds against ETSU, but I thought our kids did a great job defensively and found a way to pull this one out."
ETSU, which fell to 9-20 overall and 5-13 in the Atlantic Sun, outrebounded the Norse by a 40-34 margin, but the Norse turned 14 Bucs turnovers into 16 points.
NKU went 13-for-15 from the free-throw line and finished the game shooting 33.3 percent from the field. The Norse blocked seven shots, led by Gerrety's four, and hit nine long range shots on the day.
Bridges led ETSU with 14 points, while Bond added 12 points and a game-high nine rebounds. Serena Clark and Christopher each scored eight points for the Bucs.
Gayheart finished with nine points, four rebounds and two assists for the Norse, and she went 4-for-4 from the charity stripe, while Gerrety pulled down nine rebounds and scored two points.
Thacker wraps up her final regular season with 816 career points, 510 rebounds, 60 blocked shots and 160 assists.
"I have had a great career here," Thacker said. "It has been awesome to be able to play for two different coaches, two different styles, and I have really gained a lot of confidence these last two years. Coach Dawn has really helped me with that. I've definitely got my shot back, so that's exciting. It's been a great time, and I've really enjoyed the ride with all my teammates."
NKU's 17 wins in the regular season improves upon the benchmark of 15 victories set during the Norse's inaugural NCAA Division I season a year ago. NKU, which finished third in the conference, also improved upon its Atlantic Sun record after going 12-6 in the conference last season and earned a berth to the Women's Basketball Invitational at the conclusion of last season. The Norse will now wait to see if they will qualify for postseason play after conference tournaments wrap up.
"I think our players have positioned themselves well for a postseason invitation, so now we wait," Plitzuweit said. "We will practice in the meantime because I am hopeful we have a very good chance, and I believe that they are excited about the possibility."