by Sean Begin
Survival was the word of the day for Central Connecticut women’s basketball Saturday afternoon.
The team hosted their annual Play 4 Kay Game benefitting the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Yow was the basketball coach for the North Carolina State University women’s basketball team for 34 years. She survived two separate bouts with breast cancer before succumbing to a third in 2009.
The Blue Devils basketball team was also playing for the survival of their season. After dropping seven straight Northeast Conference games, the Central Connecticut women’s basketball team desperately needed a win against Sacred Heart University to retain any hope of reaching the NEC tournament.
Thanks to big games from seniors Jessica Babe and Jaleen Thomas, the Blue Devils (10-15, 4-11 NEC) handed the Pioneers (11-15, 8-7 NEC) a 63-53 loss to put a notch in the win column for the first time in almost a month.
“It’s been a long time for us. We’ve really just had to persevere over the last few weeks, not getting victories,” said head coach Beryl Piper. “I attribute a lot of that to the girls because after every loss they came back to the next practice really focused. They never showed any doubt.”
“Yeah, we did [need the win]. We really did,” added Babe. “We have a sense of urgency. We want to stay in this and we want to continue. We’re doing everything we can to make it up and get into the tournament.”
The score remained close for the first ten-plus minutes of the game before the Blue Devils pulled away late in the first. Babe hit a layup at the buzzer to send Central into the locker room with a 29-20 halftime lead.
Sacred Heart pushed back, tying the game up at 37 in the second half with just over 10 minutes left to play. But Central went on a 14-6 run over the last five minutes of the game (including eight answered at one point) to put the game out of reach for the Pioneers.
Central has struggled in the past with holding onto leads but staved off Sacred Heart this game to earn their much-needed victory.
“Coach Piper always says basketball is a game of runs. There’s going to be times where the lead changes,” said Babe. “You just have to be mentally tough enough to trust in your teammates, trust that everything is going to go if you do everything the right way.”
Babe finished the game with 20 points, nine rebounds, six assists and a steal. Babe’s 20 puts her at 945 for her career at Central, needing just 55 over her last three games to break 1000 in her career.
Fellow senior Jaleen Thompson finished with a double-double, scoring 15 and bringing in 13 rebounds, including seven on the offensive glass. Thomas also had two steals and played well on defense.
“Whatever she did or whatever she ate before the game she needs to continue doing it because she was so good,” said Babe.
“Jaleen hit big shots for us and she defended Gabby Washington for us the whole night. And Gabby Washington is a good player,” said Piper of Thomas’ game. “She had that role and I thought she did a really good job playing her tight and not giving her anything easy.”
Central had good contribution from junior Kaley Watras – who scored 12 with 4 rebounds and two steals – and sophomore TeJahne Malone with eight points, eight rebounds and two blocks.
“They all played within themselves, they all stayed focus,” said Piper. “Nobody got in a panic mode when things got a little bit crazy there, everybody played smart. That’s what we need to do to be victorious.”
Central still has a huge hole to climb out of. With just three games remaining as of Monday afternoon, the Blue Devils can’t afford another loss, while needing the Blackbirds of LIU-Brooklyn to lose at least two of their final games for any chance to make the NEC tournament.
For now, though, Babe, Piper and the team will take the win against Sacred Heart and move forward to the next game.
“[We need to] leave everything out there because there are no other options,” said Babe.
The Blue Devils finish the season on the road Saturday against Fairleigh Dickinson and the home on Monday versus Bryant.