Eagles now 3-1 in Cal-Pac play
Embry-Riddle’s women’s basketball squad opened a season-long, four-game Cal-Pac home stand with conviction on Thursday night, pulling away late from Simpson and defeating the Red Hawks, 67-55, at ERAU Activity Center in Prescott.
With the victory, the Eagles are technically tied for first place atop the Cal-Pac standings with La Sierra, Antelope Valley and UC-Merced in the eight-team conference. Antelope Valley knocked off previous unbeaten league leader UC-Merced, 79-61, Thursday at home.
The Eagles (13-3, 3-1 Cal-Pac), who had lost three of their last five games going into the Simpson tilt, were led by sophomore reserve guard Jazlyn Malentino’s 20 points and six rebounds, and sophomore point guard Danae Ruiz’s 16 points, six assists and seven steals. Ruiz is the main cog in ERAU’s machine.
“Danae’s the most talented player on our team, and she’s one of the most talented players in our conference,” Embry-Riddle coach Becky Burke said. “She needs to have that killer instinct, and she had that for about a quarter-and-a-half tonight [from the middle of the third period through the fourth quarter].”
Malentino converted 8 of 10 shots from the free-throw line, and Ruiz drained 3 of 8 3-pointers to lift Embry-Riddle, which had lost both of its meetings against Simpson, including one in overtime, in the Eagles’ inaugural season of 2016-17.
“To me, it was revenge,” said Ruiz, who netted a big 3-pointer from the top of the key at the third-quarter buzzer that handed the Eagles a 51-46 lead. “We just came out here hungry and we wanted it.”
Katana Martina added eight points and seven boards, and Jenna Knudson chimed in with four points and seven rebounds for the hosts, who outscored the Red Hawks, 16-9, in the fourth quarter and held them without a field goal for more than the first 6 minutes of the frame.
“The beginning of that fourth quarter won us the game,” Burke said. “And it’s getting them to understand that defensively, when we are at our best, we can beat anybody on any given night. I truly believe that. All the credit to the girls. I love coaching them.”
Simpson, which committed 27 turnovers, still had three players score in double figures, including Fallon Greenhaw (12 points, three steals, three assists), Whitney Armstrong (11 points) and Lexi Thompson (10 points, three steals).
“The guard play picked up [for Embry-Riddle], and we didn’t do a good job on defensive rebounds,” Simpson coach Derrick Pringle Jr. said. “We lost four starters last year, and we’re trying to figure out who we are still. We played hard, but not smart. Give credit to Embry-Riddle for making adjustments at halftime. We didn’t.”
Malentino said the Eagles turned up the heat in the second half.
“It was basically our defense that we were focusing on [late in the game],” Malentino added. “At the half, we were down by one [35-34], and then our focus was to get a defensive stop and keep pushing [to pad the lead].”
Like the Eagles, the Red Hawks (4-12, 2-2) had been part of a four-way tie for second place in the conference with Antelope Valley and La Sierra heading into Thursday.
On Jan. 4, Embry-Riddle lost 66-57 to UC-Merced (11-7, 3-1 Cal-Pac), but has since rebounded with two consecutive league wins. Both the Eagles and UC-Merced received votes in the latest NAIA Division II Top 25 poll, but the Bobcats saw their seven-game winning streak end at Antelope Valley.
“The conference is wide open, and anybody can win it,” Pringle said.
Although Embry-Riddle dresses eight freshmen and one sophomore in 2017-18, the Eagles play like a seasoned, hungry group for their enthusiastic head coach. ERAU finished its inaugural campaign at 14-12, 8-6 – missing out on the Cal-Pac tournament by only one game.
“We’ve matured a lot more from last year,” Ruiz said. “We get in and we get at it every day at practice.”
Embry-Riddle plays host to Cal-Pac foe Pacific Union (1-9, 0-4) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. The Eagles have 10 regular-season games left, all in conference.
Simpson visits Benedictine-Mesa (9-8, 2-2) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
Doug Cook is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.