Johnson leads UC past Urbana in MEC women's tourney
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kiara Johnson picked the perfect time to play her best game of the year.
The University of Charleston center scored 15 points, snared 16 rebounds and lifted the Golden Eagles to a 72-64 victory over Urbana University during Thursday's quarterfinals of the Mountain East Conference basketball tournament at Civic Center.
"K.J. showed us how she's going to play for the next couple of years," UC coach Adam Collins said. "She had [mononucleosis] early in the season, and there were times when that limited her. Today she played 25 minutes, and only once did I think she looked the least bit tired."
Johnson practically owned the paint in the first half, scoring seven points and pulling down 10 of her 16 boards. Her inside play helped offset her teammates' less-than-stellar shooting. UC, ordinarily one of the conference's best shooting teams, made just 18 percent of its first-half 3-point attempts and shot just 35 percent from the floor overall.
"It was a typical tournament-style game - neither team was shooting well," Collins said. "It takes awhile to adjust to playing in a big building like the Civic Center, and it's not unusual for shooting to suffer for a while. Fortunately for us, we played good defense and got on the boards pretty well."
The lackluster shooting kept both teams from gaining much of an advantage. Neither squad led by more than five points on the way to a 31-31 halftime tie, and the game stayed razor close in the second half until UC began to pull away.
With the score tied at 40, Eagles forward Kali Cuttaia took a nice feed from DeJanique Reddix and got free for a layup. Johnson, fouled attempting a putback, hit one of two free throws to put UC up 43-40. Another free throw by Tianni Kelly pushed the advantage to 44-40.
Urbana guard Lexie Taylor countered with two free throws to cut UC's lead to three, but the Eagles' Kayla Dozier answered with a layup, Johnson made another free throw and Reddix got free for a layup to give Charleston a 49-42 lead.
Urbana later cut UC's lead to 54-52 on a baseline jumper by Taylor and a free throw by Kennedy Boggs, but UC didn't fold.
Two Johnson layups sandwiched around a Reddix free throw pushed the Eagles' lead to 61-54 with about two minutes left. At that point, Urbana was forced to foul and UC canned 11 of 15 double-bonus free throws to ice the victory.
Junior guards Nichole Perry and Chyress Lockhart were the Golden Eagles' other two double-figure scorers with 12 and 10 points, respectively. Lockhart, UC's leading scorer during the regular season, endured a poor 2-for-8 shooting performance but made all six of her free throws. Collins singled Lockhart out for praise after the game.
"She guarded three of [Urbana's] toughest players and did an outstanding job," he said. "She means a lot to this team because she helps us win in so many different ways."
DeVonyea Johnson, Urbana's All-MEC guard, led the Blue Knights with 20 points. Ebany Brumfield also finished in double figures with 10.
Urbana finished its season with an 18-10 record. Charleston (20-7) will take on second-seeded West Liberty in Saturday's 2:15 p.m. semifinal. The Eagles lost two close regular-season games to the Hilltoppers, 84-80 in Charleston and 46-45 at West Liberty.
Collins likes his team's chances. "As long as we rebound well and don't turn the ball over, we've got a shot to play really well," he said.