Lions give Air Force a scare

By Doug Fitzgerald published December 22, 2005

The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs threw a big scare into the Air Force Falcons Thursday at Clune Arena before finally succumbing 68-56.

A jumper by Jennine Sauter after a Maribeth Martinez steal capped a 16-7 UCCS rally that had the Mountain Lions trailing just 59-54 with 2:24 remaining. Jennine Sauter, who led UCCS (2-7) with 19 points, had five of those during the run while the Mountain Lions defense forced five turnovers.

With the NCAA Division I Falcons holding a perilously thin lead over their Division II opponent, home court advantage kicked in. The pressure that had served UCCS so well during the comeback began to result in whistles and Air Force was send to the foul line on four of its next five possessions. The Falcons made it count, knocking down seven of the eight free throws. Meanwhile, while UCCS was racking up fouls, Air Force (7-2) was allowed to pressure with impunity which resulted in three Mountain Lions turnovers.

Air Forceâ€TMs Dawn Higginbotham had 12 of her team-high 16 points in the first half as the Falcons bulled their way to a 33-20 lead. During the half, Air Force had 13 offensive rebounds, while UCCS managed only 11 total.

Alecia Steele took over in the second half, scoring 13 of her 15 points. Despite Steeleâ€TMs performance, the Mountain Lions outscored the Falcons 36-35 in the second period.

“I think we did an awesome job in the second half,” said UCCS center Julie Richards. “Even though we didnâ€TMt win this game, I think we played really well.”

But while Air Forceâ€TMs close call still resulted in a UCCS defeat, some of the factors that caused the game to be so close should give Mountain Lions fans shivers of excitement. The first of these was the effectiveness of the matchup zone that UCCS has been working on the whole season. The other was the coming-out party of Whitney Knobbe and Caroline Ottino.

The Mountain Lions employed the matchup zone more effectively than at any time thus far this season, even managing to include a half-court trap into the scheme at times. The zone held Air Force to 40.4 percent shooting, below their season average, and for the first time this season didnâ€TMt expose UCCS to the 3-pointer as Air Force made only 3-for-12.

“We really worked on recognition of where the shooters were and their best 3-point shooter (Pamela Findlay) only had two 3s,” said UCCS coach Jessika Stratton. “Hopefully we can carry that over. I think that (the Mountain Lions are) beginning to understand our defense and our philosophy.”

Knobbe and Ottino, meanwhile, each gave huge contributions off of what has so far been a dangerously thin UCCS bench. Knobbe matched her career highs with eight points, two steals and two rebounds while providing an energizing force on both ends of the floor.

“Whitney adds a spark for us offensively and defensively because sheâ€TMs so fast,” said Stratton. “She was in the right place at the right time. Sheâ€TMs a tough kid. She gives good minutes and definitely proved to me that she deserves more.”

One play in particular illustrated that toughness and opportunism. With 3:31 left in the game and UCCS trailing 59-48, 6-foot-2 Air Force center Jacki Novak grabbed a rebound and was looking for an outlet pass. Knobbe came in from behind, ripped the ball away from Novak and put in a layup.

“I remember her standing there, 6-foot-3 tall or whatever, and her just holding the ball out to me,” said Knobbe, who admitted that going from Lamar High School to the college game was a big adjustment. “Itâ€TMs finally coming back to me. Iâ€TMm finally getting it back and I feel more comfortable with this team.”

Ottino provided strong defensive post play, an area where the Mountain Lions have struggled frequently this season. The junior, who had two points, two blocks and two rebounds in a season-high 14 minutes, had played little so far this season. A starting middle blocker on the UCCS volleyball team, Ottino missed the entire preseason and took time to learn Strattonâ€TMs system.

“(Ottino) said that this was the first week that she felt really good and she felt that things were clicking,” said Stratton. “You could see that out here that she felt comfortable. She came in, she boxed out and played strong minutes for us.”

The physical nature that predominated most of the game suited Richards just fine. Unencumbered by many of the ticky tack fouls she often gets tagged with in conference games, the 6-foot-2 senior was a force on both ends of the floor with 17 points, nine rebounds and seven blocked shots.

“Thatâ€TMs the difference between DI and DII,” said Richards. “Itâ€TMs great to play against big girls because it just makes you better.”

And better is exactly what Stratton and assistant coach Phil Johnson have been working towards. Thursday, the Mountain Lions seemed to be cluing in on the message that the coaches have been trying to convey.

“I told them before the game, ‘if you put everything you have on the floor, youâ€TMre going to surprise yourselves and youâ€TMre going to surprise (other) people,â€TM” said Stratton. “And they did. They left everything they had and thatâ€TMs all I can ask of them.”

UCCS Players/Staff Featured

Jennine SauterJennine Sauter21FFr.
Jennine SauterJennine Sauter21FSo
Jennine SauterJennine Sauter21FJr.
Jennine SauterJennine Sauter21FSr.
Julie RichardsJulie Richards40CSo
Julie RichardsJulie Richards40CFr.
Julie RichardsJulie Richards40CJr.
Julie RichardsJulie Richards40CSr.
Caroline OttinoCaroline Ottino13FSo.
Caroline OttinoCaroline Ottino13FSo.
Caroline OttinoCaroline Ottino13C/FSr.
Maribeth MartinezMaribeth Martinez14GJr.
Maribeth MartinezMaribeth Martinez14G
Whitney KnobbeWhitney Knobbe24G
Whitney KnobbeWhitney Knobbe24G
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