JACKSON, Tenn. - On a night when its offense struggled to shoot the basketball, Florida Southern turned to its defense here Friday evening to help the fourth-seeded Moccasins earn a 61-50 victory over fifth-seeded Kentucky State in the first round of the NCAA Division II South Regional Tournament at Fred DeLay Gymnasium on the campus of Union University.
For the game, the Mocs offense shot 30 percent from the field and 25 percent from the 3-point line, but its defense held the Thorobrettes to 33 percent shooting from the field and limited them to a total of 16 points combined in the second and third quarters.
"I thought for us to shoot as bad as we did in a regional tournament and still come out with a win that was huge for our team. We turned up our defense and tonight it was better than it has been and that was something we needed to do," Moccasin head coach Betsy Harris said in the postgame press conference. "But, of course, if you shoot the ball bad, you do need to step up your defense."
With the victory, the Mocs improve to 25-5 on the season and advance to a regional semifinal game on Saturday, March 12 against eighth-seeded Tampa at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. Tampa earned a spot in the semifinals following its 72-62 upset of tournament host and No. 1 seeded Union.
The win also improved the Mocs to 8-11 all-time in the NCAA Tournament and helped the Mocs advance to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2012. In fact, FSC is now 7-4 all-time in first round NCAA Tournament games.
"It will be our third time playing Tampa this season," said Harris, who improve to 38-19 as the Mocs head coach. "We beat them at their place the last time we played and I know it was a heartbreaker for them, but ever since then, they've been on a roll and have been playing great. They can thank us for that."
In Friday's game, the Mocs, who led 25-17 at the half, outscored Kentucky State, 20-9, in the third quarter to push its lead to 45-26 after three quarters.
The Mocs opened the third quarter by scoring the first eight points to push its lead to 33-17, including four points from senior guard Sydni Payne (Conyers, Ga.). After the Thorobrettes, who were making its second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, stopped the run a trey by Brooklyn Sharpey, the Mocs would close the quarter on a 12-6 run as Payne scored eight of her team high 14 points in the quarter.
"My shots weren't falling in the first half, so I relied on my defense, but in the second half I was able to get to the basket more and my teammates gave me great passes and I was able to finish in the second half."
The 20 point third quarter was needed by the Mocs as Kentucky State woke up in the final period as they outscored the Mocs, 24-16 to pull within eight points late in the game. In fact, KSU scored two less points in the fourth quarter than they had the previous three quarters combined.
"After holding them to seven and nine points in the middle two quarters, Kentucky State made up for that in the fourth quarter as they scored 24 points," Harris added. "We have to be more consistent. I thought we relaxed a bit in the fourth quarter, but also I thought KSU came out more aggressive in the fourth quarter than they did the previous three quarters. They were just more aggressive than we were in the final quarter."
In the fourth quarter, the Thorobrettes shot 59 from the field and held the Mocs to just one field goal as they shot 1-for-10 from the floor in the final quarter, but held KSU's rally thanks to a 14-for-19 effort from the line in the final stanza.
KSU's fourth quarter charge was led by the play of Joymesia Howard, who finished the game with 17 points and 13 rebounds, including scoring 11 of her team's 22 fourth quarter points.
"I thought No. 44 (Howard) was pretty tough for them. She had a double-double on us," said Harris. "We knew going into the game we had to stop both No. 44 and No. 52 (Powell). We contained No. 52 pretty good, but No. 44 really played well tonight."
Howard entered the game as the Thorobrettes leading scorer and leading rebounder on the season as she came into the game averaging 11.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Meanwhile, Logan Powell had seven points and four rebounds in the loss.
Along with Payne's 14 points, freshman guard Camille Giardina (Sarasota, Fla.) finished with 12 points, including 7-for-10 from the free throw line and sophomore guard Jensen Blassage (Cherry Valley, Ill.) added 11 points and five rebounds in the win. Blassage scored seven of her 11 points in first quarter as the Mocs held a 15-10 lead after the opening 10 minutes of the contest.