ECU women lose big lead in loss

Richard R. Barron/The Ada NewsEast Central’s Devon Branch gets tripped up during action earlier this month inside the Kerr Activities Center. Branch scored a career-high 26 points in ECU’s 79-71 loss to Henderson State Saturday in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.

ARKADELPHIA, Ark. — The East Central University women’s basketball team is on the outside looking in as far as the Great American Conference standings go, after Henderson State rallied past the Tigers 79-71 Saturday afternoon.

Coach Matt Cole’s team fell to 7-14 overall and 6-11 in GAC play. The Tigers are currently tied for ninth place with Northwestern in the current league standings. The top eight teams qualify for the postseason tournament. ECU has five games left on the regular-season schedule.

Meanwhile, the Reddies improved to 17-6 overall and 13-4 in conference action. They are in the third-place spot in the standings behind Southwestern (17-0) and Arkansas Tech (14-3).

It was an agonizing loss for the Tigers, who led by as many as 21 in the second quarter.

The Tigers got hot early and led 10-0 after a 3-pointer by Lakin Preisner at the 6:02 mark of the first quarter. The Reddies battled back and after a layup by Karrington Whaley, the ECU lead had shrunk to 12-11.

The Tigers scored the next six points and after Alexa Adair took a rebound and went coast to coast for a layup with under a minute left, ECU led 18-11.

ECU overwhelmed Henderson State at the start of the second period, going on a 17-3 run in the first 4:32 to take a commanding 35-14 lead.

Preisner and Aaliyah Blakley hit 3-pointers during the big ECU run.

East Central settled for a 43-25 halftime lead. The Tigers shot 15-of-33 (45.5 percent) from the field over the first two quarters while limiting the Reddies to 9-of-30 (30 percent) shooting.

The Reddies whittled away at the big ECU lead throughout the third period and when Lani Snowden buried a 3-pointer at the 3:53 mark, HSU had pulled within 47-46.

Preisner was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 29 seconds left and sank all three free throws to give ECU a 56-52 lead heading into the fourth period. The Reddies outscored ECU 27-13 in the third frame.

That trend continued in the fourth quarter.

Henderson State outscored ECU 20-4 to open the final period and build a 72-60 lead, and the Tigers never got closer than six the rest of the way.

ECU went ice cold in the second half, hitting just 8-of-31 field goals (25.8 percent) while Henderson State knocked down a blazing 17-of-25 shots (68 percent), including a 7-of-14 (50 percent) effort from beyond the 3-point arc.

Senior Devon Branch led the Tigers with a career-high 26 points while adding four rebounds and a steal. Junior Lakin Preisner added a career-high 22 points with seven boards, an assist and a steal.

Blakley, an Ada High graduate, added six points and a team-best eight rebounds.

Haleigh Henson scored 23 points and dished out five assists to pace Henderson State, while Bree Bossier and Snowden added 16 points apiece. Hailey Estes collected 16 rebounds and nine points for the home team.

ECU will wrap up a three-game road trip at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany. The Tigers are at home at 1 p.m. Saturday, when Southwestern visits the Kerr Activities Center.

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Jeff Cali has been covering sports in the Ada area since the mid-90s. He graduated from Byng High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from East Central University.