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Team Concludes California Trip With 66-62 Win Over Cal Lutheran
Messiah found time to soak up the L.A. sun during its West Coast swing, picking up a pair of wins as well.

Thousand Oaks, CA — Messiah’s week-long stay in southern California concluded on a high note Monday afternoon, as the Falcons picked up their second West Coast win in a 66-62 decision over host California Lutheran University.

After dispatching the University of California-Santa Cruz by a 68-48 score in the opening round of the Cal Lutheran Posada Royale Classic, Messiah fell to now 21st/23rd-ranked Emmanuel College by a 56-60 score Saturday evening.

Despite having to hop aboard a red-eye flight immediately following Monday’s contest against the Regals, Messiah (10-1) was able to hang on down the stretch, making the most of a trip-best 50 percent shooting clip for the win.

“I was pleased with the trip,” said Messiah head coach Mike Miller, moments before boarding a plane back east. “We had every excuse not to win our last game, but we still were able to get two wins out here against two top 30 teams, one on the road and one on a neutral court. There’s still so much we can improve on, but it’s clear that we can compete with people. And that’s encouraging.”

Facing Cal Lutheran (7-3) in a single game not affiliated with the weekend’s Posada Royale Classic, it was the Regals that used a late first-half surge to claim a 33-27 lead at the half, limiting Messiah to just 11 of 27 shooting (40.7 percent) while claiming a monstrous 26-9 advantage in total rebounds — a stat that comprised a 9-1 difference in offensive boards.

A layup from senior Julie Henninger gave the Falcons an early 9-3 lead and a three pointer from freshman Jordan Seiz made it a 12-7 game, and when junior Michele Schleich converted a layup with just 7:25 remaining, Messiah led by a 16-11 score.

It was then that Cal Lutheran made its gradual push to regain control, scoring 22 of the half’s final 31 points to claim the six-point advantage at the intermission.

“(Freshman) Dori (Gyori) got into some foul trouble in the first half, and as we subbed, we had trouble getting into our offense,” Miller said. “We started missing some shots, they obviously dominated us on the boards, and they got out in transition. The beginning of the second half, everyone boxed out and we were just tighter with the ball. They couldn’t get out and run as much after we scored.”

Miller’s group connected early and often to start the final period, making three of its first five shots from the field — plus five free throws — to pull ahead by a 39-37 score less than five minutes in. A three ball from Cal Lutheran’s Erica Whitley regained a 40-39 lead for the hosts on their next possession, but two made free throws from Gyori put Messiah back ahead 41-40 with 14:13 to play.

From there, the screws of the game tightened, with six lead changes occurring over the next seven and a half minutes.

“Our defense was really good in the second half,” Miller said. “We made a lot of really good stops. We missed some shots that we could have made, but our defense was good. In the first half, the game was up-tempo, but it became a possession by possession game in the second half.”

The breaking point may have come around the six-minute mark, where a driving layup from Henninger erased a 55-55 tie. Following a defensive stop, Seiz was fouled on the perimeter, obtaining a one-and-one free throw chance.

She missed the first, but Gyori was there to back tip the rebound, giving the Falcons another possession.

Hess then buried a jumper, giving Messiah a 59-55 lead.

That scenario virtually repeated itself on the Falcons’ next trip.

Following yet another defensive stop, Henninger drove hard to the basket, being fouled in the act of shooting with 3:38 to go. The Carlisle, Pa. native made the first but missed the second, and Gyori ripped the rebound out of the air.

Henninger took a feed from Hess for a nifty layup just 14 seconds later, and Messiah led by a 62-55 spread.

“Those two rebounds from Dori were huge,” Miller said. “For us to score off those extra chances … it probably was the difference.”

Messiah’s inaccuracy from the free throw line nearly cost the team, as Cal Lutheran was able to pull within two (64-62) with 37 seconds to play following two missed freebies from Miller’s squad. The Regals had an opportunity to tie or take the lead with just under 30 seconds to play — Messiah missed the front end of a one-and-one to provide that chance — but the Falcons’ defense came up large, forcing a missed three.

As Henninger came up with the rebound, she was intentionally fouled, giving Messiah two free throws plus the ball.

Henninger made them both, as the Falcons drained the last six seconds for the 66-62 decision.

Four players scored in double-figures in the win, the third time Messiah recorded such proficiency this season. Henninger led the way with 18, while Hess scored 13 on a five of eight shooting performance. Gyori and Schleich each accounted for 10 points, with Gyori grabbing eight rebounds in just 19 minutes of work.

Messiah converted 13 of 21 second-half shots (61.9 percent), helping to the team’s 24 of 48 clip overall. It was the fourth game of the season that the Falcons connected on 50 percent or better from the floor.

“Both Julie and Michele did a good job of handling the ball, defensively we kept plugging away, and we kept battling on the boards,” Miller said. “Close games like this are good for us, because we really don’t have a set plan (for late game situations). This group is kind of evolving in that way.”

Miller and his troops will now jet home overnight, hopefully being rested enough to begin Messiah’s January-term Wednesday. The team will then travel to Baptist Bible College for a 6 p.m. contest Thursday night, before returning to Commonwealth Conference play Saturday against Widener University.

“It really was a great trip out here,” Miller said Monday night. “We got to hang out on Rodeo Drive, see Hollywood, Venice Beach, the Santa Monica Pier, Malibu … to get two wins made it even better. I think this can help us as we continue to move forward in a lot of ways.”