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Western Illinois Women's Basketball: Leathernecks Face Omaha In Opening-Round Showdown

Emily Clemens, WIU Women’s Basketball

MACOMB, Ill. — The No. 3-seeded Western Illinois Leathernecks take on No. 6 seed Omaha in the opening-quarterfinal round of The Summit League Championship, which is held in Sioux Falls, S.D.

LAST TIME OUT: Emily Clemens led the way for Western Illinois, as the Leathernecks (21-8, 10-4) closed out the regular season with a 77-61 win at Denver (16-13, 7-7) Saturday afternoon (Feb. 24).

The senior from Muscatine, Iowa finished with 28 points, eight assists and eight rebounds. Taylor Higginbotham also added 20 points in the contest.

SCOUTING OMAHA: Western Illinois leads the all-time series history 11-4 over the Mavericks. The Leathernecks swept both meetings against Omaha this season. They are led by Amber Vidal, who averages 13.2 points per game, while Courtney Vaccher averages a team-leading 6.9 rebounds per contest.

SEASON SHOWDOWNS: 
FIRST MEETING: Western Illinois surged past Omaha 90-51 Saturday afternoon (Jan. 13) inside Baxter Arena for its third Summit League win of the season.

Led by the game-high 29 points and five three-pointers from Emily Clemens, the Leathernecks improve to 13-5 overall and 3-1 in league play, while the Mavericks fall to 8-8 and 0-4 in Summit League action. Taylor Higginbotham followed with her seventh double-double of the season with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Morgan Blumer contributed with 14 points and nine rebounds, while Michelle Farrow rounded out the double-digit scoring with 10 points and a career-high eight rebounds and six assists.

SECOND MEETING: Every player on the Western Illinois women’s basketball team scored as the Leathernecks (18-7, 8-3 Summit League) cruised to a 103-68 win over the visiting Omaha Mavericks (10-12, 1-8 Summit League) Wednesday night (Feb. 7). Morgan Blumer tallied a game-high 28 points highlighted by four field goals from downtown. Emily Clemens added 19 points, eight assists, and six rebounds, and Taylor Higginbotham 17 points and nine rebounds.

THREE LEATHERNECKS GARNER ALL-LEAGUE AWARDS: Western Illinois had a trio of players earn All-Summit League honors, as announced by the conference Wednesday (Feb. 28).

Emily Clemens (First Team), Taylor Higginbotham (Second Team) and Morgan Blumer (Second Team) all earned league recognition for the second year in a row.

“Awards in this league are a real honor,” said head coach JD Gravina. “To have three players named in the top 11 for the league shows how much the members and other coaches respect our team.”

Clemens garnered First Team honors for the second straight year. The senior from Muscatine, Iowa, leads the league in assists, assists per game, free throws made, assist/turnover ratio, free throws attempted, steals, steals per game, minutes and minutes per game. This season, she broke The Summit League all-time records for career assists and free throws made, while also becoming the program’s all-time leading scorer and leader in games played.

This season, Clemens was a four-time Summit League Player of the Week, Summit League Female Athlete of the Month for January, espnW National Player of the Week (Feb. 26), and NCAA Starting Five honoree (Dec. 26). She is also one of 10 finalists for the Senior CLASS Award national honor.

Blumer also earned All-League honors for the second straight season, as she was named to the Second Team. The Milton, Wis., native currently ranks first in the league with 79 made threes this season, and her 14.7 points per game rank fifth. She totaled a season-high of 32 points at Northern Illinois on Nov. 18, 2017.

Higginbotham garnered Second Team All-League honors for the second consecutive season. The Germantown, Wis., native became the program’s 17th 1,000-point scorer and also notched eight double-doubles, which led the league. She ranks third in the league with 16.6 points per game, and tallied a career-high of 29 points at Wichita State (Dec. 1, 2017). She was also named Summit League Player of the Week on Dec. 4.

BLOSSOMING BLUMER: Senior Morgan Blumer is only 21 points shy of reaching 1,000 career points for the Leatherneck women’s basketball program. Should she eclipse the mark, she will be the 18th Leatherneck to join the 1,000-point club, and the third active player along with Emily Clemens and Taylor Higginbotham.

Should she pass the mark, she would also become the fastest Leatherneck to reach 1000 career points. As a junior transfer from Florida Gulf Coast, she debuted for Western on Nov. 11, 2016, and has played in 62 games for the Purple and Gold.  The Milton Wis., native is also 10 made 3-pointers shy of passing the program’s single-season record of 89, a mark she set last season. 

THE THIRD SEED: Western Illinois finished third in The Summit League Regular Season Standings following the conclusion of 2017-18. Even though Western Illinois finished tied for third in 2014-15, they were the No. 4 seed in The Summit League Championships. This is the first time in head coach JD Gravina‘s career that his team is the No. 3 seed. The last time Western Illinois was a No. 3 seed was in 2001-02 under then-head coach Leslie Crane. That season, the Leathernecks finished 16-12 and 8-6 in the MidCon.

GRAVINA CLIMBING THE RECORDS: Thus far, JD Gravina has the best win percentage of any coach in the history of Western Illinois Women’s Basketball (.558). However, he ranks third all-time in program history for wins at Western Illinois. A win over Omaha would give him 121 wins, which ties former coach Bea Yeager (121-155, 1971-82) for second all-time.

Coaching Records by Wins
Coach Record Pct. Years
1. Leslie Crane 192-185 .509 1998-2011
2. Bea Yeager 121-115 .515 1971-82
3. J.D. Gravina 120-95 .558 2011-Pr.
4. Regina Miller 60-101 .373 1992-98
5. Kelly Hill 45-115 .281 1987-92
6. Teresa Check 23-85 .213 1982-86
7. Kathy Markey 5-21 .179 1985-86

OH, THOSE THIEVES!: Senior Emily Clemens and junior Taylor Higginbotham rank in the top-10 all-time in program history for career steals. Clemens is second all-time in program history with 277, behind former Leatherneck Oberon Pitterson (295, 1994-95). Higginbotham ranks 10th all-time with 179, and is two shy from moving into ninth all-time. Both also rank first and second in the league with 3.2 and 2.4 steals per game, respectively. 

REACHED THE SUMMIT: Western Illinois made history in last year’s Summit League Championship Tournament, defeating No. 2 seeded IUPUI 77-69 in overtime to win its second-ever postseason title, and its first in 22 seasons. 

Taylor Hanneman‘s 3-point buzzer beater to send Western Illinois (26-6) into overtime helped the Leathernecks surge past IUPUI 77-69 for their first Summit League Tournament title since 1995.

Western held on to a 56-50 lead with 4:45 to play after Blumer attacked the rim and drove into the lane for a quick bucket. At the final media timeout with 4:15 to go, the WIU lead was four. The Jaguars eventually gave themselves a chance and cut WIU’s lead to 60-57 with possession. After Mallory Boyle split a pair from the charity stripe to make it a 4-point game, IUPUI responded with a long 3-pointer. As eight seconds remained on the clock, Clemens was fouled and went to the line. She missed both and then picked up a foul, and the Jaguars eventually hit a pair of free throws to take a 62-61 lead. On the ensuing inbounds play, IUPUI intercepted it and forced the Leathernecks to foul. A pair of free throws put Western in a 3-point hole with 2.2 seconds to go.

With 2.2 seconds to play and down by three, Taylor Higginbotham inbound the ball to Hanneman, who took a quick shot fake, a dribble and drained the center 3-pointer as time expired in regulation. With the momentum on their side, the trio of Higginbotham, Hanneman and Morgan Blumer each hit consecutive shots from beyond the arc to give Western a 9-point advantage. Those 3-pointers ended up being the overtime spark the Leathernecks needed to close out The Summit League Tournament Championship game and earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

NOTES FROM LAST TOURNAMENT GAME: 
– 2016-17 marks the first Summit League Regular Season and Tournament title since the 1994-95 season… also marks the second NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament berth in program history (since 1995)…
– Total women’s tournament attendance was 21,092, the fourth highest all-time…
– Three straight wins in the tournament to capture the title… before that, the Leathernecks had not won a tournament game since 2012…
– First overtime championship game since 2012 (South Dakota vs. Kansas City)… third overtime in Summit League Tournament finals history…
– Emily Clemens is the first Western Illinois player to be named Summit League Tournament Most Valuable Player since Oberon Pitterson (1995)…
– Emily Clemens and Morgan Blumer were both named to the all-tournament team…
 -Western Illinois became the first-ever school out-of-state school to win the Summit League Tournament in its then-nine year history at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. 
– WIU’s 26 wins are the most in program history… 11 straight wins ties a program record, second time ever…
– Taylor Hanneman‘s shot to send Western into overtime earned No. 2 on ESPN SportCenter’s Top-10 Plays (3/7/17)…

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