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Sycamore women lose heartbreaker to MVC leader Belmont

Jan. 14—A turnover, an intentional foul call and subsequent free throws added up to a heartbreaker 61-56 loss for the Indiana State women's basketball team Sunday afternoon in Hulman Center.

In the last four games, the Sycamores have played three teams that are unbeaten in Missouri Valley Conference games, and another with just one loss.

ISU wound up losing all four to Drake, Northern Iowa, Murray State and now Belmont. But Sunday's outcome was the closest. It left ISU's records at 5-10 overall ane 1-4 in the MVC, while Belmont rose to 12-4 and 5-0.

"Obviously, Belmont is one of the top teams in the conference, and we are becoming one of the top teams in the conference, as well," said Deidra Johnson, the Sycamores' interim head coach. She's filled that duty since Dec. 30, and head coach Chad Killinger remains out indefinitely for unspecified reasons.

Sunday's outcome hinged on the game's final 8 seconds.

Belmont freshman guard played the Tuti Jones central role in the decisive clock ticks.

ISU led 56-55 with less than a minute left to play. Ella Sawyer had hit one of two free throws with 55.1 seconds on the clock.

Belmont's Jailyn Banks got called for a charging foul, giving the ball back to ISU. The Sycamores turned it over. Then Belmont turned it over. Then ISU turned it over again, with Jones swiping the ball and driving for a layup and a 57-56 lead with 8 seconds left.

It was more than just one basket. The officials whistled Sawyer for an intentional foul on Jones' basket, giving the Bruins guard two free throws also. Jones hit both, extending Belmont's lead to 59-56. As a result of the intentional foul, Belmont got possession of the ball, too. Once downcourt, ISU had to foul and Jones drew it. She promptly hit the subsequent two free throws with 4 seconds left, sealing the outcome.

"[Jones] made a hell of a basketball play," Johnson said. "That's what the best guards in this conference do. That's what good players do; crunch time comes, they make a play.

"Tough call down the stretch, but it is what it is," she added. "They made their free throws, and they put themselves in position to win on the road, which is tough to do."

Belmont blew out its previous two MVC opponents — Bradley by an 89-47 margin and Evansville by 84-40.

"Hats off to Belmont for being able to come back and have a good finish there," Johnson continued, "but hats off also to our players for being able to scratch and crawl and do anything we can to get a win."

Johnson's squad hit a solid 43.2% of its shots from the field and 14 of 21 free throws, and matched the Bruins in rebounding with 35 apiece. But the Sycamores turned the ball over 20 times, and the Bruins stole the ball 15 times. Belmont had 17 turnovers. ISU's final two turnovers essentially set up the visitors' victory. Nine of the Sycamores' turnovers came in the fourth quarter.

"We were there. We were right there," Johnson said. "We've just got some things to clean up so we can finish the next time."

Chelsea Cain and Bella Finnegan led a balanced ISU scoring effort with 10 points each. Mya Glanton grabbed five rebounds, including the 500th of her college career. Sawyer topped ISU with four assists. Jones led Belmont with 13 points, followed by Emily La Chapell with 12 and Kendal Cheesman with 10.

The Sycamores started aggressively, hitting five of their first nine shots and bolting to a 16-7 lead, capped by Finnegan's second 3-pointer. Belmont responded with a 9-0 run, finished by a 3s from guards Kate Hollifield and La Chapell, knotting the score 16 apiece. The first quarter ended in an 18-18 tie.

Johnson sent in reserves, and they revived ISU. The Sycamores built a 28-20 lead, sparked the subs — two baskets from Deja Jones, another from Asia Donald and two free throws by Chloe Williams, as well as starter Kiley Bess' 2-pointer.

ISU kept the lead through the second quarter, but the Bruins once again whittled it down. Belmont finished the first half on a 12-5 run, disrupted only by a Bess bucket and a Williams 3-pointer.

Still, the Sycamores led 33-32 at halftime and were shooting 50% from the field (13 for 26) and perfect from the free throw line at 4 for 4. Eight ISU players contributed points in those first 20 minutes.

The third quarter gave the Sycamores temporary momentum. Glanton, Finnegan and Bess hit single free throws each, followed by a Finnegan 3-pointer and Cain's power drive for a layup triggered by Finnegan's defensive rebound and assist. That outburst gave ISU a 49-40 edge at the end of the third period.

Belmont clawed back, again, scoring the fourth quarter's first 13 points to get its biggest lead at 53-49 with 3 minutes, 31 seconds left in the game.

Glanton snapped the Bruins' spell with two free throws and driving layup to tie at 53-53. ISU added a Cain power-drive basket and Belmont got a layin by Banks to make it 55-55. Sawyer soon hit one of two free throws as the Bruins' Cheesman fouled out, giving the Sycamores' a teetering 56-55 advantage.

That set up the theatrics of the final minute.

ISU plays 7 p.m. Friday at Southern Illinois (6-9, 1-4).

"We've got to stop with the turnovers. Game-time situations we've got to be better; I've got to be better," Johnson said.

"We just played the top teams in the conference back to back to back," she added. "We didn't come out with the win, but we held our own."

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.