BLOOMINGTON — Putting the defensive clamps on Wheaton College in the fourth quarter unleashed enough offensive opportunities for the Illinois Wesleyan women’s basketball team to secure an 88-81 victory at Shirk Center on Wednesday.
Freshmen Kendall Sosa and Raven Hughes combined for 27 points to keep IWU close until senior Rebekah Ehresman could catch fire, scoring 11 of her team-high 16 points in the fourth quarter.
“When we made our run back to go ahead, it was four freshmen and a sophomore (on the court),” said IWU coach Mia Smith, whose bench outscored its counterpart, 36-21.
The Titans got 12 points, five rebounds and four assists from Hughes, a University High graduate, while Normal Community product Sosa had 15 points and two assists.
“Raven never quits,” Smith said. “Raven will do anything you ask her to do or she’ll try. When a senior needed to step up, (Ehresman) stepped up.”
The Titans, winners of four straight, improved to 6-2 overall and 2-0 in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin while the Thunder fell to 4-2 and 1-1.
Wheaton controlled the early action until a Nina Anderson 3-pointer sparked a 7-0 run to pull IWU into a tie at 14.
Maggie Dansdill, who finished with 19 points, sank a 3-pointer at the first-quarter buzzer to give the Thunder a 24-20 lead.
Wheaton still led at 37-32 midway through the second period when a Molly McGraw bunny off a Riley Brovelli assist ignited a 7-0 run to put Wesleyan on top, 39-37.
That flurry ended on a 3-pointer by Sosa, who kept IWU in the game with 11 second-quarter points. She dusted her previous high of 12 points by making all six of her shots from the field including three 3-pointers.
“I know my role,” Sosa said. “It’s easier knowing your role. Wheaton was a school I looked at and I really wanted to play well against them. The first half, I think we struggled a little. The second half, I think we improved playing as a team.”
Sitting on a 44-39 lead, the Titans seemed ready to create some genuine breathing room, but a 6-0 run gave Wheaton a 45-44 lead at intermission. IWU’s Maddie Merritt scored 11 of her 15 points the first half.
The scoring see-sawed as the second half opened until back-to-back baskets by Hughes and Sosa pulled IWU into a tie at 53. A Sosa 18-footer off an Ehresman assist sparked a 14-7 run to end the third quarter with IWU up, 69-64.
“It was a tough game,” said Ehresman, who had six assists. “We knew coming into it it would be a battle. It’s a mental battle. You know it’s going to be close the entire game. It’s who has the most grit.”
Wheaton, which committed seven of its 18 turnovers of the final period, pulled into a 70-70 tie on a three-point play by Jill Berg. IWU then went ahead to stay on back-to-back three-point plays by Merritt and Sydney Shanks.
Ehresman later scored eight unanswered points to give Wesleyan its biggest lead at 84-72 with 4:41 left.
“Our first half, we came out a little soft,” she said. “I think that second half we really pulled together and started playing as a team. That’s what really brought home a W.”
Ranked No. 7 nationally among 450 Division III teams in free throw percentage, IWU sank 16 of 25 to fall to .782 on the season.
Wheaton, which came in averaging a nation-leading 10.0 blocks per game, swatted five shots by the Titans, who sank 55.2 percent of their field goal attempts compared to 44.4 percent for the Thunder.
Wheaton’s Hannah Frazier scored a game-high 25 points and Jennifer Berg added 13. Devin Kyler grabbed 16 rebounds for the Thunder while Merritt led IWU with nine.
“We turned the ball over at key stretches of the game,” lamented Thunder coach Kent Madsen, whose team gave up 25 points off turnovers. “It was a well fought game by both teams.
“I thought their entire bench played well. I thought their all-conference player, Ehresman, had a great second half. She did a lot of great things for them.”
The Titans return to action at 5 p.m. Saturday against North Central (0-6, 0-2).