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Tom Savage | NCAA.com | March 27, 2015

On the defensive

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- California (Pa.) entered Wednesday’s semifinal contest against Emporia State on a scoring surge, averaging nearly 78 points per game in their first four tournament outings. But it was an impressive defensive effort that propelled them to the national championship game with a 51-46 victory against Emporia State.

Emporia’s 48 points is a season low, and Cal made them earn every basket in the second half. The Hornets managed just 15-second half points and were a dismal 22 percent from the field in the second half.

Irina Kukolj led the Vulcans (31-4) with 13 points and 11 rebounds, her first double-double of the season. Kaitlynn Fratz scored 14 points and the team’s leading scorer, Miki Glenn, added 12 points.

Emporia State got off to a quick start, and it looked like the Hornets would make it a foot race. They hit their first four shots of the game and built a 10-4 lead. The quick start looked to have Cal on their heels, but the Vulcans stayed in it and trailed by just one at halftime.

“We didn’t play very well and we knew we didn’t play our best basketball, but we were only down one,” Cal head coach Jess Strom said. “We knew coming out that it was our ball to start the half, so we thought if we could get a score, it’s an even game again.”

The Hornets shot 44 percent from the field in the first half, and had some easy looks at the basket throughout the opening frame. ESU cooled as the half went on, but their drought was only just beginning.

ESU’s easy looks dried up in the second half as Cal changed their defense and stuck a stifling 3-2 zone on the Hornets, and ESU never responded for the balance of the game.

“Whatever defense you’re in, the kids still need to go out and play it,” Strom said of the halftime change on the defensive end. “We made the adjustment, but the kids bought into it and they just played it has hard as they possibly could. I think we did a good job of making little adjustments throughout the game, and that’s just focus. They believe that what ever I say is going to help us win.”

The Vulcans took a little momentum into the break when Fratz scored at the buzzer. They opened the second half on a quick bucket from Glenn and Cal had the lead for only the second time of the night at 32-31.

At the 6:55 mark, ESU’s Addie Lackey air-balled a three-pointer and the Hornets were shooting just 25 percent from the field in the second half. It only got worse from their for the Hornets (29-5). Meanwhile, Cal picked it up a notch and the Vulcans began to flex their muscles when Glenn scored a pair of free throws with 6:16 to play for their largest lead of the game at 48-42 lead.

Despite the great defensive effort, Cal didn’t necessarily shoot the lights out, either. They finished the night shooting a season-low 29 percent from the field and scored just 21 second half points.

“I know there are times when we’re not going to shoot that great,” Strom said. “I expect spells where we don’t score, so that doesn’t shock me [29 percent]. We talked about it late in the game when we were up five. We weren’t talking offense, all we needed was stops. Once we feel like we get up, if we can get some stops, we feel like we can win games.”

Kelsey Barnwell’s 3-pointer for ESU with 15 minutes and 48 seconds to play gave the Hornets a 38-37 lead. After Barnwell’s score, ESU managed just three buckets for the remainder of the game, and Cal took advantage.

Fratz matched Barnwell’s long ball with a three-pointer of her own just moments later, and the Vulcans took the lead for good at 40-38.

“To give up just 15 points in the second half is pretty amazing, especially when we’re so undersized,” Strom said. “We just gutted it out some how, some way. That’s the identity of our team and hopefully it takes us to one more win.”

Emporia’s Kelly Moten, who led the Hornets with 17 points and nine rebounds, scored with 51 seconds to play to cut the Cal lead to 49-46. Moten’s basket was ESU’s first in nearly six minutes.

“Our league is mostly a man-to-man league, and we’ll occasionally see a zone, but nothing for that extended amount of time,” said ESU coach Jory Collins. “We were absolutely inept on offense the entire second half. A lot of that is my responsibility because we didn’t do a good job of attacking that zone. We just couldn’t score.”