The Fatima Lady Comets had every chance to unseat the defending champions.
Several untimely turnovers and a long field-goal drought dashed any of those hopes, as Fatima dropped a 38-35 decision to St. Joseph Benton in the first round of the State Farm Holiday Hoops Invitational on Friday afternoon at Rackers Fieldhouse.
"It's not characteristic at all of our team," Fatima head coach Dustin Hays said of the Lady Comets' 18 turnovers, including a pair on Fatima's final two possessions of the game. "We talk about it all the time. Turnovers is what wins you games, it's what loses you games. We caused them in the first half, in the first quarter especially, got an early lead. Then we had them in the second half and you saw what happened."
Fatima junior Morgan Brandt scored 16 of her game-high 21 points in the first half as the Lady Comets appeared to be in control. Fatima led 9-8 after one quarter while forcing seven turnovers. The Lady Comets closed the second period with six straight points on a pair of 3-pointers from Brandt, handing Fatima a 22-15 halftime edge.
"When you're that close, when you have a seven-point lead at half, yeah, obviously you're disappointed you don't come out with a victory," Hays said.
That's when Benton ratcheted up the defensive pressure.
"We made some mistakes," Hays said, alluding to Fatima's eight turnovers in the third stanza. "Up by seven coming out of the half, then we had several turnovers right in a row. We gave up some easy layups. That's a killer. It gets them right back in the game."
Benton scored the first five points of the second half to cut the deficit to 22-20. Fatima broke a scoring drought with a pair of free throws from Kristen Boeckmann with 4:33 left in the third, giving the Lady Comets a 24-20 advantage. A couple more free throws from Brandt proved to be the only other points Fatima would score in the frame, as Benton took a 27-26 lead into the final period.
Benton's Morgan Domann canned a pair of free throws early in the fourth quarter to give the Lady Cardinals a 29-26 lead. Boeckmann knocked down a 15-foot jumper with 5:07 remaining, Fatima's first field goal since Brandt's final 3 with 28 seconds left in the first half.
"It was a little bit of the pressure that Benton was putting on us that got us out of what we wanted to do offensively," Hays said. "It was a little bit of us, not moving, not setting good screens, not doing those things that we typically do."
It was Brandt who kept Fatima in the game. The guard came up with a steal, a fastbreak layup and a free throw that handed Fatima a 33-31 lead with 3:06 left.
Benton's Mallory McAndrews, who entered the game averaging 18.5 points per game, responded with a 3 for her fourth, fifth and sixth points of the contest with 2:45 left.
Fatima's Annie Bock gave the Lady Comets the lead with 1:41 left on a putback to make it 35-34, but that's the last time Fatima would light up the scoreboard.
Lindsay Doolan hit a pair of free throws with 1:29 left to put Benton ahead 36-35. Fatima turned the ball over on its next possession and was forced to foul. After McAndrews hit two foul shots to make it 38-35 with 17.7 seconds remaining, Fatima was never able to get a shot off, throwing the ball out of bounds with less than two seconds to go.
"I'm proud of my girls," Hays said. "We fought hard. I told them, "That's why we came here. To see that type of competition.' We're not going to see that defense too much anywhere else on teams that we play. Benton did an excellent job of playing defense. But so did we. We held them to 38 points in our own right, we held their top two scorers to under 10 points."
Doolan paced Benton with nine points.
Benton (5-0) advances to play Hickman, a 72-67 first-round winner against Eureka, in a 5:30 p.m. semifinal today at Rackers Fieldhouse.
Fatima (4-2) will take on Eureka in a loser's bracket semifinal at 2:30 p.m. today.
"We can't hang our heads," Hays said. "We have a good Eureka team (today). We just have to bounce back."