By John Bohnenkamp
It was a funny story, JD Gravina said.
Gravina, Western Illinois’ women’s basketball coach, had a substitution plan late in the third quarter of Wednesday’s home game against Omaha. Danni Nichols was going back into the game to replace forward Evan Zars, to give her some rest time for the final 39 seconds of the quarter.
“Evan had been in a long time, and was looking a little tired,” Gravina said. “So we were going to put Danni in for Evan, then come back with Evan for Alissa after a little break.
Except Nichols told forward Alissa Dins she was replacing her.
There was nothing Gravina could do.
All Zars did after the quarter break was score eight consecutive points, starting the Leathernecks on a comeback for a 77-70 win.
“The moral of the story,” Gravina said, smiling, “is that Danni knows best.”
Zars was listening during the post-game media availability when Gravina told the story.
“I did think it was kind of weird because it was kind of a rotation the whole game,” Zars said. “Then I was like maybe he was going with … I don’t know. I had no clue until he told you guys.”
The fourth quarter was when everything went right for the Leathernecks (11-2, 2-0 Summit League), who were outscored 22-11 in the third quarter and trailed 61-49 to start the fourth. Zars’ last two points — free throws with 6:42 to play — started Western Illinois on a 15-0 run.
“It was just kind of like we had that big realization, that it’s like now or never, running out of time,” Zars said. “I think that just shows how much we’ve grown and how much experience we have on this team.”
The Leathernecks, Gravina said, have a battle going with their emotions.
“The balance from being aggressive, but still getting good shots,” he said. “The pendulum actually swung a little bit too much toward the, ‘Let’s just focus on getting a good shot.’ We lost the fearlessness that makes us good. And then we get down 10 or 12 in the fourth quarter, and then you’ve got nothing to lose, and you have to score quickly. Then you’re constantly looking to score quickly.”
It was during that break between the third and fourth quarter that Gravina shouted to his team to “Play with some fire.” Which the Leathernecks did.
“It’s hard, because when things aren’t going well, it’s like which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Gravina said. “Are we not playing well because we were in La La Land, or are we in La La Land because we’re not playing well? I did feel like we were just a little bit out of it.”
It also helped that Omaha center Elena Pilakouta was on the bench when Zars was taking over the game inside. Pilakouta, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds, left with 7:39 remaining in the game and Omaha (5-6, 1-1) up 63-53. When she returned at the 4:49 mark, the Mavericks trailed 65-64.
Nichols had eight points during the Leathernecks’ crucial run in the quarter, and finished with 27. Jada Thorpe and Dins each had 11. Zars had a team-high nine rebounds.
Photo: Western Illinois’ Mallory McDermott defends Omaha’s Grace Cave in the first half.