KU Women Advance To WNIT Final

Bonnie Ball was all the rage at Allen Fieldhouse Wednesday night.

With the fifth-largest crowd in school history (8,360) cheering, screaming and believing, the Kansas women's basketball team beat Illinois State, 75-72, in a thrilling WNIT semifinal and advanced to the championship game Saturday at 1 p.m. against South Florida back in Allen Fieldhouse.

"What a game," a KU fan told a friend minutes after KU's dramatic victory.

It sure was.

Bonnie Henrickson's Jayhawks (22-13) held off a furious Illinois State (27-8) second-half rally to claim the victory. KU was up 17 points (48-31 at the 13:22 mark) before the Redbirds raced back and cut the Jayhawks' lead to two (61-59) with 3:32 remaining.

Sophomore center Krysten Boogaard (18 points) had just fouled out as the Jayhawks' championship dreams were seemingly slipping away.

But KU answered with a fastbreak layup by senior guard Ivana Catic and two free throws by sophomore forward Nicollette Smith. After forward Ashleen Bracey knocked down a three to cut KU's lead to 65-62 with 1:02 left, it was time for KU's franchise player to make the most important play of the game.

Junior forward Danielle McCray retrieved the offensive rebound off her missed layup and put the ball back in and got fouled.

The standing Allen Fieldhouse crowed roared as McCray screamed and shimmied with excitement. She then made the free-throw for the three-point play.

"I just stayed with it and managed to make the shot and get fouled,"  McCray said. "I was able to get the fans into the game and I was so pumped up. It was a great feeling."

Smith hit five of six free throws in the next 27 seconds to put KU up 73-69 with nine seconds remaining. Unfortunately for Kansas, freshman forward Aishah Sutherland fouled star guard Kristi Cirone on a three-point attempt. Cirone (team-high 24 points) hit all three charities to make it a one-point game (73-72) with three ticks left before Illinois State fouled McCray in desperation.

The former Olathe East (Kan.) High star calmly sank two free throws for a game-high 31 points. ISU had one last gasp, but a full-court pass went into the hands of KU junior guard Sade Morris. She flipped the ball to McCray, who ended the game tossing the ball in the air at the buzzer.

The Jayhawks raced to midcourt and hugged each other knowing they were just one win away from capturing the WNIT championship.

It was another commanding performance from McCray, who scored over 30 points for the third straight game. She also added six rebounds and two blocks while playing all 40 minutes.

"She's an amazing player," Illinois State coach Robin Pingeton gushed. "She's just a talented young lady. I felt like at times she was getting a little fatigued but she got her second, third and fourth wind. There's a reason that she's first team all-Big 12."

McCray and the Jayhawks were ecstatic with the victory and playing in front of the huge crowd.

"It was just great to have that energy and know that the fans are cheering for you," McCray said. "I can't stress enough how appreciative we are for all the fans that came out and supported us tonight  It really helps us out a lot."

Boogaard was also grateful for the fan support. Heck, Allen Fieldhouse was rocking like it was a KU men's Big 12 basketball game. The crimson and blue fans stood and cheered in the final minutes.

"It was incredible," Boogaard said. "I saw the newspapers (from the students during pre-game introductions) they use during the guys' games that they usually hold up. It was just very exciting to be in that environment and I am really excited so many people came out,. Hopefully they all come back Saturday. It was far more than I expected. I thought there may be 5,000 people here."

KU shot a sizzling 54.3 percent from the field and held the Redbirds to just 37.7 percent shooting. The Jayhawks also dominated the boards, 39 to 29 and shot 24 of 30 from the free-throw line, compared to 17 of 21 for ISU.

But Illinois State managed to stay with KU the first half (ISU actually led 17-14 with over nine minutes remaining before Kansas went on a 17-8 run to lead 31-25 at halftime) and rally in the second half as the Jayhawks committed 18 turnovers, to just six by the Redbirds. Illinois State outscored Kansas 18 to seven on points off turnovers, including 10 to two after halftime.

But KU survived and advanced in one of the biggest wins of the Henrickson era. Shortly after the game, Henrickson walked back onto James Naismith Court for her radio interview, receiving cheers from the fans. The KU coach pumped her right fist in the air, exhaled deeply, embraced KU athletic director Lew Perkins and "Mother of KU Women's Athletics" Marlene Mawson (KU women's first basketball coach in 1968), and gave high-fives to fans behind press row.

Henrickson was enjoying the moment, but already looking ahead to Saturday's championship game.

"Bring two of your closest friends and will fill this place up," she said. "Thanks again for the crowd. We need you one more time."

Henrickson then spoke to reporters in the interview room about the game. While she wasn't happy about blowing the big second-half lead, Henrickson was proud of her players' poise in crunch time.

"It is a credit to our kids to find a way to stay in it and execute down the stretch," she said. "We need to kick ourselves in the pants for having a 16-point lead, letting that go, and making it into a game, but we need to pat ourselves on the back for winning."

While McCray spearheaded the victory with 31 points off harassing, physical ISU defense, KU wouldn't have won this game without Boogaard. She was aggressive on offense and on the boards, getting good looks inside with the Redbirds focusing heavily on McCray.

Boogaard went 6 of 8 from the field and 6 of 7 at the free throw line. She scored eight of KU's first 14 points and opened the second half scoring six of the Jayhawks' first nine points as KU extended its lead to 13 (41-28 with 16:59 remaining). Boogaard actually made her first five shots before finally missing with 13:24 remaining in the game. She also added seven boards and three blocks.

After failing to score in double figures for five straight games (4.6 ppg during that span), the 6-5 Boogaard has come up big the last two contests. She had 11 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in 20 minutes Monday night at New Mexico.

"I knew that I needed to step up big tonight and play hard," Boogaard said. "I had a lot of confidence tonight coming off the game at New Mexico and then getting a good practice in yesterday."

KU will need another stellar performance from Boogaard, McCray and their teammates to beat South Florida (26-10) and win its first WNIT in school history. USF crushed Boston College, 82-65, at Chestnut Hill, Mass., Wednesday night in the other WNIT semifinal.

Kansas women's basketball has become the talk of town, and the Jayhawks want to keep people buzzing on Saturday.

"It is one game that we got to win," Henrickson said. "With that comes some special opportunities for these kids to so something special for the seniors and leave here and say that was was their legacy, to win a championship."

Catic is ready to seize the moment.

"It would just be great," she said about winning the WNIT title. "When I first got here, the program was down. People didn't really come to watch our games. And tonight, to see almost 8,500 people, it was great to see the community finally realize we're a good basketball team and we play good basketball.

"The fact that I can end my career on a win with a trophy is great. I hope to do that."

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