Strong defensive performance vaults Golden Grizzlies into conference semifinals

Sioux Falls, S.D. — It was a subject the Oakland University women’s basketball team was eager to forget, but head coach Beckie Francis saw no choice but to address last year’s first round upset loss once more prior to Sunday’s tournament opener to ensure it didn’t happen again.

Following a transformative performance by the Golden Grizzlies against Southern Utah, it’s now safe to say they’ve moved beyond it.

Fourth-seeded Oakland (19-11) turned in a strong performance and claimed a 65-58 win to advance to the conference semifinals tomorrow.

“It was a wonderful team win,” Francis said. “Our team defense on (Challis) Pascucci was unbelievable. It was everything we had worked on all week to try to stop her.”

Pascucci, Southern Utah’s leading scorer at 17.8 points per game, was limited to a single point in 37 minutes before fouling out of the game. In the previous meeting between the two teams nine days ago, Pascucci scored 28 points in an 11-point Thunderbirds’ win.

“We just (practiced) really hard on the things that (Pascucci) did to hurt us before,” Francis said. “Since we just played them, we watched that film over and over, and I think our team was so sick of watching us lose. We made the adjustments and this is a smart team.”

At the other end of the floor, Oakland junior Sharise Calhoun turned in one of her best performances of the season by scoring a game-high 24 points that seemed to come in bunches. She also grabbed eight rebounds and dished out four assists.

“She’s such a great player in that she knows when to shoot, when not to shoot, when to drive,” Francis said of Calhoun. “I love coaching her because she just coaches herself. I never have to tell her to shoot.”

The game was close in the early-going despite a slew of Southern Utah turnovers. The Thunderbirds had 11 miscues in the first 13 minutes of the game, but managed to stay within three points before the Grizzlies ended the first half on a 10-4 run.

“It was huge to get all of those turnovers and then we could outrun them to get easy baskets,” sophomore Bethany Watterworth said.

The second half featured several swings of momentum. After hitting its first three shots following the break, Oakland’s 15-point lead deteriorated when it missed eight shots in a row from the floor.

Aided by a 12-2 scoring run, Southern Utah came within three points of a tie with 11:43 remaining, but the Grizzlies responded with the next eight points to pull away once and for all.

To compliment Calhoun’s scoring output, Watterworth put up 18 points of her own, while also blocking three shots.

The Thunderbirds received 72 percent of its scoring from just two players, Caitlyn Sears (23 points) and Desiree Jackson (19).

“(Oakland) had a lot more confidence (today),” Sears said. “They were doubling us in the post and that caught us off guard at first. I think that’s the biggest difference from last game.”

The rebounding battle went decidedly against OU, as the Thunderbirds grabbed 10 more boards overall. That statistic was seemingly offset, however, by the Thunderbirds 19 turnovers or 10 more than the Grizzlies committed.

With the possibility of another first round upset behind them, the Grizzlies will shift their focus to a second round matchup with top-seeded Oral Roberts, a team that Oakland lost to twice in the regular season.

The Grizzlies will take on the Golden Eagles Monday at 1 p.m. EST.

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Follow @DanFenner on Twitter for updates and analysis throughout the tournament March 5-8.

Photos by Dave Eggen and Dick Carlson / Inertia