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By LARRY MORITZ
SALINA, Kan. — It wasn’t the start Weatherford College was hoping for, but the finish was all that really mattered.
The Texas team, runners-up in the Region 5 tournament, took their first lead late in the first half, then never trailed again in a 72-68 victory Monday over Northeast (Neb.) Community College in the opening game of the women’s NJCAA tournament.
Making its first appearance in Salina since 2004, Weatherford extended its stay in the NJCAA Women’s National Championship with the victory.
Under the tournament’s new single-elimination format, Northeast Nebraska was the first team eliminated from the event.
The Coyotes (25-5) found themselves down 10-2 in the game’s opening minutes and faced a double-digit deficit (24-12) midway through the first half.
Weatherford got four points from JohVonna Darrington and a 3-pointer from Desiree King during an 11-0 run to take its first lead, then ended the opening half up 37-35.”We were pretty sluggish right off the bat,” Weatherford head coach Bob McKinley said.
“I actually thought we were lazy getting back on defense and even lazier on offense.”We got it going late in the first half with some easy breaks and then picked it up a little.”The Coyotes opened the second half with four points from Itiana Taylor and another bucket from Darrington to stretch their lead to 43-35.
“We came out and hit the first three or four shots we took and that set the tone for the whole second half,” McKinley said.
After trailing by as many as nine with inside seven minutes to play, Northeast (28-5) had one late possession with a chance to tie or take the lead.
The Hawks pulled within two, 70-68, and forced a Weatherford turnover with 16.2 seconds to play. But Northeast returned the favor, getting called for traveling with 6 seconds remaining. Darrington got the last of her team-high 16 points on a pair of free throws with 3.5 seconds on the clock.
Darrington was one of four starters in double figures for the Coyotes, with Taylor adding 15 points, Bre Brooks had 13 and King finished with 12. Lexi Murphy had 19 points for Northeast, including five 3-pointers.
Weatherford will face top seed and defending champion Trinity Valley (32-1) in today’s 2 p.m. second-round contest, guaranteeing that one Texas school will reach Thursday’s quarterfinals.
“I don’t know if anyone matches up with them very well,” McKinley said of Trinity Valley. “They are good at every spot. They beat us by about 20 at their place, and I’m hoping we’re a little more energetic this next time.”
Weatherford accounted for Trinity Valley’s only loss of the past two seasons, but it came by forfeit after most of TVCC’s players were serving a two-game suspension following ejections during a game in the preceding week. The Lady Cardinals won one game despite having only five players, but one of them was injured, leaving the team with only four players for the game against Weatherford.