BLOOMINGTON — It was only a game that the Illinois Wesleyan women’s basketball team lost on Saturday, but a 79-70 setback against Trine packed the emotional wallop of four-year journey whose conclusion leaves a painful void.
A season of big steps, which had gotten tangled of late in injury and illness, came to a halt before the combatants were ready to say goodbye in an NCAA Division III Tournament second-round contest in front of 1,600 at Shirk Center.
“This has been an incredible year for us,” said IWU coach Mia Smith. “If people look at us from the beginning of the season until now, they’ve really seen a team that has come together. They were fun and exciting to watch. That’s really been reflected in the crowd that’s been behind us the past couple weekends."
The No. 14-nationally ranked Titans, who finished 25-4, had hoped to avenge last year’s 63-56 opening-round loss to the Thunder (26-3). Trine, of Angola, Ind., advanced to a March 9 Sweet Sixteen meeting with No. 2 Wartburg (29-0).
“These have been the best four years,” said IWU senior Rebekah Ehresman, whose team chopped a 14-point deficit to two with 6:01 left. “I wouldn’t have traded them for the world.
“I’ve had the best teammates and the best experience. It’s been so much fun. It’s just really hard to know that we’re done.”
Smith knew what she meant.
“It’s been four of the best years of my life,” said the coach, who will also lose Molly McGraw and Kelsey Walsberg to graduation. “Just to be a part of their lives means a ton to me. I know how much they mean to this community.”
Wesleyan seemed ready to keep going when it shrank a 52-38 deficit to 63-61 with 6:01 to go. That 23-11 run included six points from McGraw, who finished with 20.
Ehresman added 14 as did Maddie Merritt while Walsberg chipped in 11. Ehresman also had team highs for rebounds (eight) and assists (four).
Trine was powered by season-best efforts of 21 points by Kayla Freeman and 20 by Cassidy Williams. The Thunder also got 14 points from Brandi Dawson and 13 from Hayley Martin.
IWU, which had been forcing more than 24 turnovers per game, could only coax 12 from Trine.
“I felt like our press was pretty effective for the most part,” Smith said. “We probably needed to be a little bit more aggressive with it.
“We can’t take anything away from Trine. They played a great game. They played a more physical game than what we did.”
Four points from McGraw helped IWU get off to a 12-6 start, but Trine answered with a four-possession 10-point run. The Thunder led the rest of the way.
Trine’s 40-29 halftime lead was a product of .577 field goal shooting and 4-of-8 3-point gunnery. The Thunder scored six first-half baskets within two feet of the hoop, most of which were uncontested thanks to slick passing.
The Titans, who shot .304 from the field, received 10 first-half points from Merritt, who was 7 of 8 at the free-throw line.
“For us to come out of this pod is something we definitely don’t take lightly,” said Trine coach Ryan Gould, whose team beat No. 12 DePauw on Friday.
Gould felt last year’s game against IWU prepared his squad for Saturday.
“We don’t see a lot of teams who will press and come after us in the way that Illinois Wesleyan does,” he said. “Last year, when we played them we had close to 30 (turnovers). Knowing a little bit more of their system in run-and-jump definitely helped us.”
It also helped to shoot .596 from the field, which was well above its .439 mark for the season. Trine outscored IWU in the paint, 44-30.
“I think we had moments where we were not in sync as a team,” Smith said. “Part of it is because we all wanted it so bad.”