Wearing shirts with Gianna and #2 emblazoned on the front, and the familiar combination of Bryant and 24 on the back, TCU Basketball came out Saturday with full emotion and tired legs, playing their third game in the last seven days. The tired legs were certainly a factor early according to Raegan Pebley, as the Frogs missed their first 13 shots from the field and scored just nine points in the first quarter. “It’s tough. Thee games in seven days with a road trip, and we had some travel issues coming back. Plus, they were all very physical games.”
But this is a gritty, resilient team that’s used to finding a way to win, something they would do Saturday afternoon. Despite a 20+ advantage by Kansas State on the boards, Pebley’s squad stayed close in the first half, coming up with big plays and big shots by both their stars and some unsung heroes. “I never wanted to have to see, when you get out-rebounded that badly, what other things you can do to win. But we did see — it was a total gut-check for our team. They found a way.”
That way was found in some unusual places; little-used senior forward Ella Hellessey came off the bench with 1:33 remaining in the half and the Frogs clinging to a 22-16 lead, and drained a three pointer on her first touch of the game. To that point, TCU was shooting just 24% from the field and was just 2-9 from three. Her shot gave TCU a nine point advantage, but an answer by Auoka Lee tightened things up with just 16 seconds remaining in the first half.
Enter Hellessey again, who drained another deep ball with five ticks to play in the first twenty minutes, sending the Horned Frogs to the locker room up 10.
But Kansas State wasn’t going to go away, maintaining their trend of making big runs early in each quarter. They came out of the break on fire, going on a 12-1 run over the first 2:21 of the third quarter to take their first lead since early in the first quarter. A timeout settled the Frogs down, though, and the two teams traded buckets until a late run by the home team sent TCU to the final frame with a seven point lead.
Once again, the Wildcats weren’t going to start slowly, chipping away at TCU’s advantage and taking the lead with 4:44 to play. Kianna Ray put her team back on top with a three pointer a possession later, but the Cats answered with a pair of free throws. Ray drew a late in the shot clock foul moments later, and knotted things at 56 by going 1-2 from the line. K State answered with a three pointer to take their largest lead of the day, but Jayde Woods made the first of two monster plays late by hitting from behind the arc herself. Two more Wildcat free throws put the Frogs behind with just about a minute remaining, but once again Pebley turned to her trusty senior forward, and once again Hellessey delivered. “I thought Ella did a phenomenal job, just being ready, staying ready. Being confident. Not second-guessing herself. That takes a very high level of toughness,” Pebley said. Hellessey deferred the credit, instead heaping it on her teammates and coaches after hitting a critical jumper in the lane with 55 seconds to play to tie the game at 61. “I think it’s our team culture. I think that, because you’re so locked into the game, on the sideline — we call it our knot — you’re always locked in. So, when contributing on the bench, you’re ready to go when you go in.”
To that point, Lauren Heard — the Frogs’ star point guard, had a relatively quiet 14 points, but her layup with 14 seconds to play but TCU back on top in what would be the game-winning points. The win was secured in an unusual way, though, as Woods drew an offensive foul call off of the ball on the ensuing possession — a play that Jeff Mittie said resulted from the seniors’ ability to “flop pretty well.” When asked about the comment, Pebley chose to simply respond “no comment.”
Two Heard free throws sealed the third win of the week for TCU, who moves to 16-4 on the season and 7-2 on Big 12 play — which is good enough for solo possession of second place in the conference. It bears repeating, this team is really, really good.
In addition to the critical conference win, TCU Women’s Basketball had another important mission Saturday afternoon, honoring Kobe Bryant, his daughter GiGi, and the players, coaches, and parents that died tragically in a helicopter crash last Sunday morning. Wearing shirts with GiGi and the #2 on the front and Bryant and the #24 on the back, players and coaches honored not only the memory of those lost, but the people that have sacrificed for their children every day — handing out #GirlDad and #GirlMom shirts to fans. or Pebley, it was a chance to show her program’s support and to continue to further the cause of women’s sports. “Being a female basketball player, those girls from the Mamba team, they dreamed of playing, of being in their [college basketball player’s] shoes. They were working for that. They were well on their way to that. Their families, when you make it to this level, it’s a group of people that help make that happen. The coaches, the parents, the mom who cuts the orange slices — all of that. This was just a moment for us to be able to honor them another way.”
She didn’t want to just honor the memory of those girls, but to thanks all of the people in the lives of her players and her future players for what they’ve done, as well. “I think the girl dad influence right now is awesome. It’s just awesome. Whether it’s a biological dad or a man that’s come into our lives thats helped lift us up in a positive way… we have some women on our team that have had some women step into that fatherly role, and we honored them with girl mom t-shirts as well. We aren’t where we are at right now today without those people.”
They certainly have done their part with their play, their character, and their will to compete and win.
TCU Women’s Basketball will get a much needed break before traveling to Lawrence to take on Kansas next Saturday at 5:00pm. That precedes the rematch with Baylor in Waco on February 12th, with the team’s next home game coming against Iowa State on February 16th.