EAST PEORIA — The annual battle between Illinois Central College and Kirkwood for the Cougar Holiday Tournament title went to Kirkwood this time.
Kirkwood seized control in the fourth quarter and knocked off the hosts 52-44 on Saturday to capture the championship of the 37th annual tournament at Lorene Ramsey Gymnasium.
The last seven tourney champs have been either Kirkwood or ICC.
“It was a typical Illinois Central-Kirkwood love affair,” said Kirkwood coach Kim Muhl, whose team avenged a 59-58 home loss to the Cougars in November. “They beat us at our place, and rightly so, and this one was just one of those wars.”
In a game where no team led by more than four points for most of the first three quarters, fifth-ranked ICC (11-3) scored six straight to take a 37-33 lead into the final period.
But turnovers and tough-luck shooting doomed the Cougars in the final 10 minutes.
Kirkwood (13-3), ranked No. 8 in the most recent NJCAA Division II poll, embarked on a 15-1 surge in the first eight minutes of the final period.
A 3-pointer by Awal Ajak gave Kirkwood the lead for good at 39-38 with 6:23 left. Then, after the Cougars’ fifth consecutive turnover to start the period, Olivia Usher converted an old-fashion three-point play for a 42-38 Eagles led.
Back-to-back buckets by Ajak (13 points) pushed the lead to 48-38 with 2:36 to play and the Eagles sealed the deal with 4-for-6 free throw shooting by all-tournament pick Tayana Wilson (team-high 14 points).
The only ICC point in the decisive Kirkwood run came on an administrative technical foul free throw by Bailey Larsen. The Eagles were assessed the technical because Peoria High grad and Eagles substitute Mackenzie Jenkins was not listed in the official scorebook.
“I thought they turned up their defensive pressure a little bit and we didn’t do a very good job of running our offensive execution,” said ICC coach Karrie Redeker. “We didn’t adjust to our cuts, we didn’t cut harder and they made a lot more plays in that fourth quarter than we did.”
ICC had 25 total turnovers, eight in the fourth quarter, and shot 22 percent from the field in the second half (6-for-27).
“You’re not going to beat too many teams shooting 22 percent in the second half,” Redeker said. “They were forcing into a lot of late shot clocks. They were more physical defensively and that gave us problems.”
Kirkwood shot only 17 percent in the first half (4-for-23), but ICC managed only a 25-21 lead at the break by committing 15 turnovers and 13 fouls.
“I thought they outplayed us," Muhl said. "They played harder. They were getting all the 50-50 balls. The only thing that saved us was our defense and we hit a couple shots late."
Jasmine Levy scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead ICC, which also received eight pints from Madison Faulkner. Arika Wooldridge had 11 points for Kirkwood.
Stan Morris can be reached at 686-3214 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @stanmorrispjs.