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With four double-digit scorers and a complete team effort on both ends of the floor, the Lakeland College women's basketball team turned out a 84-70 Northern Athletics Conference victory over Aurora University in its final regular-season conference contest on Saturday, Feb. 23, in Aurora, Ill.
With the win, which made for the Muskies' eighth straight, Lakeland clinched the No. 5 spot in the final NAC standings, which will pit them against No. 4 Edgewood College in the opening round of NAC tournament play on Wednesday, Feb. 27.
Although Aurora hung with the Lakeland in the first half, as the Spartans had the 39-37 advantage heading into the locker room, the Muskies used a 16-0 run in the opening minutes of the second half to take control of the game for good. Aurora managed to crawl back to within 10 with 3:44 remaining, but the Muskies hit their free throws down the stretch to secure the victory, knocking down a solid 84 percent of their free throw shots for the game.
"We took care of the ball a lot better in the second half," said senior forward Brenda Paulson, who led the Muskies with 18 points. "We started attacking their weaknesses, took care of business and hit our free throw shots. This win helped us to secure a good spot in the tournament."
Lakeland committed 11 turnovers in the first half, but was able to rein it in a bit during the second period to finish with 19. The squad was also aided by an impressive 50 percent field goal effort for the game and won the war on the glass, 36-33.
"This was another total team effort, which has been the story for us a lot lately," said Lakeland head coach Teri Johnson. "We went about 10 deep, and everyone came out and filled their role. We wanted to attack more in the second half and up our defensive intensity, and I think we did a pretty good job of that. Terra Hiben also had a great game. She has continued to bring a lot of intensity on defense, and she forced some key turnovers today."
Sophomore guard KC Blahnik followed Paulson's offensive effort with 16 points to go along with a game-high 12 rebounds for the double-double. Senior guard Peggy Keiper and Hiben, a sophomore guard, also reached double figures with 15 and 12 points respectively.
Lakeland and Edgewood share identical 12-6 NAC records heading into their conference quarterfinal face-off, as the Eagles' 2-0 record over the Muskies this season gives them home court advantage. Ironically, the Muskies last NAC loss came at the hands of Edgewood back on Jan. 22, where Lakeland lost a close 56-52 on the road. The Muskies also dropped their first meeting with the Eagles at home, 59-43, in their season-opening NAC game in early December. However, Lakeland's recent win streak could prove to make things interesting heading into the opening round of the tournament.
"It's a chance for us to redeem ourselves," Johnson said. "We didn't play well against them in our two other games this year, and I feel like at this point we're on a roll. We've been playing good basketball these past several weeks, and I hope we can carry that momentum with us into the NAC Tournament."
Paulson agrees, and indicated that this year's tournament has heightened importance for her with it being her senior year.
"With this being my last year playing in the conference tournament, I'm ready to roll," Paulson said. "I think the teams we played at the beginning of the year don't realize the kind of team Lakeland is now, and I think it's going to be interesting to see how everything turns out."
Wednesday's tip-off time with Edgewood is set for 7 p.m. in Madison, Wis.