Last season, a ray of light, in the form of CSU-Pueblo sophomore Kendall Babler, peeked out of the shadows during the ThunderWolves postseason run.
That ray of light happened to shine just a bit brighter Friday night in the ThunderWolves (2-0) 70-60 win over the University of Dubuque Stallions for the Chuck Stephens Classic held at Massari Arena.
When Rachel Espinoza, the ThunderWolves leading scorer last year was sidelined for the remainder of the season by a knee injury, it was Babler who stepped in and filled the point guard void.
Babler eventually led the Pack to an RMAC championship and a NCAA regional appearance that included a 19-point performance in a victory over Wayne State.
“Last year, it was either she steps up or we go home,” head coach Kip Drown said about Babler’s play late last season. “She took her game to another level and got some confidence.”
Drown said her performance from last year has definitely carried over into this season.
Both Babler and Espinoza, who added five points and five assists to her credit, left Drown extremely optimistic about his team. Having those two in the backcourt this season left him just saying “wow.”
The tenacious tandem of Espinoza and Babler’s speed and court vision allowed the ThunderWolves to play fast-break offense all night against the Spartans. The ThunderWolves lighting-fast play helped lead to 10 steals, three to the credit of Espinoza. The Pack cashed in 17 points off the takeaways.
“That’s our bread and butter,” Babler said about the ThunderWolves energetic style of play. “We definitely like that the best. If we have to set up an offensive play we will, but if we have a chance to mix it up and down the court, we’ll do that.”
Babler’s team-high six assists helped guide teammates such as sophomore forward Erica Hicks and senior forward Amanda Bartlett to the basket all night long. Hicks had 14 points and Bartlett finished with a team-high 16 points in 28 minutes and brought down five rebounds.
Despite a 3-pointer from Hicks that put the ThunderWolves up by 10 late in the first half, Dubuque’s Mollie Whinting (18 points, 3-4 on 3-pointers) helped her team claw back into the game.
The Spartans were only down by a slim 38-36 deficit at halftime behind a 50 percent, 6-12, first half performance from the 3-point line. They shot an impressive 8-17, 47 percent overall from that range.
Drown pointed out that the Spartans statistically did not have many three- point shooters, but tonight, as he put it, “They were lights out.”
Despite shooting just 37 percent from the field (27-72), it was the ThunderWolves rebounding ability that proved to be the deciding factor in this game.
Led by junior Katie Tomlinson’s 12 rebounds, The ThunderWolves manhandled the Spartans on both the offensive and defensive boards (17 offensive, 35 defensive). The Pack won the outright battle of the boards against the Spartans 52-44.
“That’s the second time in a row we’ve out-rebounded a team,” Drown said. “I told this group at the beginning of the season that we particularly have the best chance of rebounding.”
The ThunderWolves bench played a significant role down the stretch in the second half. Junior Janelle Branting led all bench scorers with nine points. Her three-point play extended the Pack’s lead by 10 with 4:04 left in the game
CSU-Pueblo will play their final game in the Chuck Stephens Classic against a Drury (Mo.) University team that lost earlier in the night in dramatic overtime fashion to the Adams State Grizzlies.
Bethanie Funderburk had a career high in scoring with 28 points for the Panthers, but was outdueled by preseason RMAC player Vera Jo Bustos. Her 36 points anchored a late second half comeback and an overtime final of 82-79 for the Grizzles.