by Benny Benton
BELMONT, N.C. – The Barton College women's basketball team proved Saturday night that while it may have lost its best player for the moment, it has not lost its resolve.
Playing without the nation's third-leading scorer, Nyeshea Willie, who was out with an injury, the seventh-seeded Lady Bulldogs pulled off the only upset in the quarterfinal round of the 2014 Conference Carolinas Basketball Tournament Powered by OrthoCarolina, knocking off second-seeded Belmont Abbey College, 78-77, at the Wheeler Center.
Barton junior Kaila Lea, who took Willie's place in the starting lineup, stepped up in a huge way, providing a team-high 22 points, a team-high four assists and nine rebounds. Brianna Thomas added a double-double of 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Ashley Thornton chipped in 13 points and Tiffany Webster added 10, including the game-winning free throws with 3.8 seconds remaining.
The victory advances the Lady Bulldogs into the tournament semifinals on Wednesday, March 5, at the Cabarras Arena and Events Center in Concord, N.C., where they will square off in the neutral-court battle at 5:30 p.m. against No. 3 seed University of Mount Olive, who defeated No. 6 seed Erskine College on Saturday, 87-76.
Belmont Abbey (21-8) entered the match ranked No. 6 in the Southeast Region, but for the third time this season, was unable to defeat the Lady Bulldogs.
The game was as close as the one-point final margin indicated. The two sides went through 17 lead changes and 15 ties, with Belmont Abbey's biggest lead four points and Barton's eight. Both teams shot 46 percent in the first half, both had the same number of rebounds, 43, and both got 11 points off the bench. The Lady Crusaders had one more turnover than Barton (13 to 12) while the Lady Bulldogs scored two more points in the paint (40 to 38).
There were nine lead changes in the last eight minutes alone, as the two teams punched and counter-punched each other on virtually every possession.
A jumper by Lea to put Barton in front 61-60 with 7:42 to go was matched on the other end by a jumper from Morgan Midkiff, who scored 23 for the Lady Crusaders. A 3-pointer from Thornton was followed by a 3-pointer from Midkiff. A 3-pointer from Shadawn Clanton was followed by a layup from McKenzie Owens, who poured in a game-high 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
The Owens basket tied the game at 67-all. Thomas gave Barton the lead again with a basket with 5:17 left, but Midkiff drained another 3-pointer to put Belmont Abbey back in front, 70-69, with 4:35 to go.
Owen gave Belmont Abbey the biggest lead for either side in the game's final 13 minutes when she made a layup with 3:24 remaining to put her team up by three, 72-69, but Lea answered with a jumper on Barton's next possession. Owen again put the Lady Crusaders up three with a layup with 2:50 to go, but Thomas responded with a 3-pointer to tie the game for the 13th time at 74-all.
A turnover by BAC allowed Barton to regain possession, and Lea scored on a layup to put the Lady Bulldogs back in front 76-74 with 1:58 to go. Both sides came up empty on their next two possessions before Belmont's Kelsey Long was fouled with 37 seconds left.
Long made the first free throw to cut the deficit to one at 76-75 and missed the second, but Owens had three putback attempts and was fouled on the final one. She sank both attempts, putting Belmont Abbey back in front 77-76 with 31 seconds to go.
Barton worked the clock down to the final few seconds when Webster drove the right side of the lane and drew a blocking foul from Melisa Foures with 3.8 seconds remaining. Webster, a 67-percent free throw shooter on the season, calmly made both attempts to put Barton up by the final margin.
Ironically, the two free throws were the only ones attempted by the Lady Bulldogs in the second half.
Belmont Abbey got the ball into its own end of the court in the corner along the baseline, but Long's desperation heave was nowhere near the basket as time expired.
Barton shot 45 percent from the field in the contest, its best effort in five games. Lea led the way by making 11 of 18. The Lady Bulldogs sank 7 of 19 attempts from 3-point range, with Thornton making three of them and Thomas sinking a pair.
The Lady Bulldogs will now turn their attention to Mount Olive. Barton lost both regular season meetings with the Lady Trojans, 69-62 in Wilson on Jan. 30, and 79-66 in Mount Olive last Tuesday.
The last time Barton and Mount Olive met in the Conference Carolinas Tournament was the title game of the 2010-11 season, with the Lady Bulldogs claiming an 83-68 win to clinch the first of three straight NCAA Division II Southeast Regional bids.