LIBERAL, Kan. – With two ranked NJCAA Top 25 teams squaring off in the Jayhawk Conference women's opener, it was no surprise Tuesday's contest between Butler and Seward County came down to the wire.
Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, it was Seward's Aquila Mucubaquire hitting a game-winning 3-pointer from 23 feet with 5.9 seconds to play as the 17th-ranked Saints edged No. 25 Butler 77-74 in a turnover-filled battle at the Greenhouse.
Butler's Camille Downs led all scorers with 20 points, while RaVon Nero scored 15 points. The duo accounted for 17 of the Grizzlies' 27 points in the final quarter, but Butler was plagued by 33 turnovers on the night.
"They played really well offensively in the fourth quarter and made some plays," said Butler head coach Mike Helmer of both Downs and Nero. "We've just got to be more consistent on the tough plays. I'm really disappointed in where we're at defensively. We don't give up 70-plus points ever. Until we fix the defensive side of things, we're going to struggle."
The game featured 11 ties and 10 lead changes in the second half, with eight of those lead exchanges coming in the opening five minutes of the final quarter.
The Grizzlies held an early 4-0 lead, keeping Seward (6-2 overall) off the scoreboard for the opening 4:14 of play, but Butler could not build on the early momentum and had 20 turnovers by halftime.
"We executed the defensive plan the first quarter to perfection, but we couldn't just stop turning the ball over," said Helmer.
Downs gave Butler a boost with a tying 3-pointer near the end of the opening quarter, then hit another trey to begin the second quarter for a 17-14 lead. However, Seward responded with 10 straight points – including consecutive treys from Gina Ballesteros – to jump in front 24-17 with 4:32 before halftime.
Butler worked the deficit down to two, getting a 3-point play from Riley Hett and a field goal from Miranda Givens. Seward took a 33-30 lead into the break, with the margin never getting above five for the remainder of the game.
Seward led for most of the third quarter, outside of Butler taking a 37-35 lead following two Nero free throws and a Downs layup at the 6:37 mark. The Saints took a 49-47 advantage into the final quarter, setting up a back-and-forth battle for the next five minutes.
In the fourth quarter, Butler took its biggest lead of the second half at the 5:59 mark when Nero was fouled on a made basket and added the bonus for a 60-58 lead. Seward responded with two Mucubaquire free throws, but the Grizzlies regained the lead on a Nero lay-in with 5:18 to play.
Butler knotted the game back up twice at 64 and 66-all, but Seward pushed the margin to 71-66 behind a Tianna Johnson basket and a Mucubaquire trey at the 1:52 mark. Downs scored Butler's next six points – including two foul shots to pull the Grizzlies within three while Seward's Johnson exited the game with her fifth foul with 1:23 remaining.
With 49 seconds remaining, Seward's Vanda Cumaba made two free throws for a 74-70 Saints lead. Butler quickly erased the four-point margin with a Downs layup, then Nero jarred a ball loose and made two foul shots with 36.4 seconds after getting fouled on a driving attempt in the lane.
Seward nearly turned the ball over on its final possession, as Butler's Tamara Nard was injured by forcing a loose ball on the baseline. The injury stopped play, but the Saints almost committed a backcourt violation after the restart.
The Saints settled down and got the ball to Mucubaquire, who drained a 23-foot shot in front of the Seward bench as the shot clock wound down.
"We deflected the ball three times and didn't get it," Helmer said of Seward's offensive possession. "Those are the type of plays that we've all got to get better with."
After Butler burned its final timeout, the Grizzlies got the ball to Nero for a driving attempt in hopes of a basket and bonus attempt, but the shot did not fall and Seward grabbed the ball for the win.
Johnson led the Saints with 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting and had four assists. Cuamba finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, while Mucubaquire and Leilani Augmon had 10 points each.
Butler will try to even its conference record Saturday when the Grizzlies travel to Colby for a 3:00 p.m. contest. The Trojans enter conference play after going 8-0 to begin the season.
"Our first semester conference games are going to be brutal and to go to Colby with them being undefeated, it's going to be a tough one for us," said Helmer.