NEW ALBANY, Ind. — For the first time this season, sophomore center Avery Harper didn’t find herself in the starting lineup for the University of Rio Grande.
Her response to head coach David Smalley’s decision was an unexpected surprise.
The Seaman, Ohio native backed a career-high performance by teammate Lexi Woods with 20 points – 15 of which came in the second half – and 11 rebounds to help the RedStorm post an 82-80 win over Indiana University Southeast, Saturday afternoon, in River States Conference women’s basketball action at the IUS Activities Building.
Rio Grande, which rebounded from an upset loss at Brescia University on Thursday night, improved to 12-7 overall and 5-1 with the victory – its sixth in seven meetings with the Grenadiers since the 2014-15 season.
IU Southeast slipped to 11-7 overall and 3-3 in league play with the loss.
Woods, a redshirt freshman from Waverly, Ohio, led Rio Grande’s winning effort with a career-best 25 points – 16 of which came in the first half – while also pulling down nine rebounds.
Woods’ first half play, coupled with that of senior teammate Sydney Holden (Wheelersburg, OH), staked the RedStorm to a 43-41 halftime lead, but Woods tweaked an ankle and Holden got into foul trouble as the Grenadiers opened the second half on an 11-1 run for a 52-44 advantage of their own after a jumper in the lane by Hannah Coleman with 6:37 remaining in the third quarter.
Rio still trailed by eight, 56-48, following a layup by Southeast’s Emmy Ralph with 3:14 left in the period, but the RedStorm scored 12 of the final 16 points in the quarter to forge a 60-all tie entering the final stanza.
That’s when Harper went to work.
Harper connected on four three-point goals in the quarter – all off assists by junior Chyna Chambers (Columbus, OH) – helping Rio open up a 10-point cushion, 77-67, following the last of the trifectas with 4:00 left to play.
Harper, who also connected on a first half three-point attempt, finished 5-for-5 from beyond the arc after entering play at 4-for-21 from distance for the season. She was 7-for-10 from the field overall.
Holden, who had 13 points (all in the first half), eight assists and seven rebounds, fouled out 14 seconds later and the Grenadiers used the opportunity to make one last push.
IUS twice sliced the deficit to just three over the next 3-1/2 minutes before closing the gap to 82-80 on a conventional three-point play by Ariana Sandefur with 41 seconds left.
The RedStorm missed a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left that would have, essentially, iced the win, allowing the Grenadiers one last-gasp opportunity for a game-tying or game-winning bucket.
Sandefur misfired on a jumper in the lane with four seconds left and Harper came away with her final rebound of the day before being fouled with seven-tenths of a second play.
She unintentionally missed the first of two free throw tries before intentionally missing the second chance. Southeast’s Natalie Fichter came away with the rebound on miss No. 2, but she failed to get off a desperation heave before the final buzzer sounded.
Rio Grande managed to hang on despite going just 9-for-16 from the free throw line (56.3%) in the second half.
IU Southeast placed four players in double figures, with Coleman’s 18-point outing leading the way. She also had a team-high eight rebounds and a game-best three steals.
Ralph tallied 15 points and three assists in a losing cause, while Madi Woods and Lauren Lambdin netted 11 points each. Fichter equaled Coleman with eight rebounds.
Rio Grande returns to action next Thursday in a crucial RSC matchup against West Virginia University-Tech, which currently holds a one-game lead over the RedStorm for the East Division lead and the league’s best record.
Tipoff is set for 5:30 p.m. at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley, W.Va.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.