Lady Bulldogs struggle defensively in first loss, 79-74

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One problem in the first half turned into multiple issues for the Barton College women’s basketball team Tuesday night in its NCAA Division II Conference Carolinas game with Belmont Abbey inside Wilson Gym.

In the first half, the Lady Bulldogs struggled to contain sophomore forward Maria Kuhlman, who had 19 of the Crusaders’ 28 points as Barton clung to a five-point lead.

But over the final two quarters, the Kuhlman problem turned into a three-headed monster with Manuela Fungate and Allie Downing getting in on the act. By crunch time, the Lady Bulldogs couldn’t guard anyone with any consistency, leading to Barton’s first loss of the year in a 79-74 defeat.

Barton fell for the first time in nine games and evened its conference record at 1-1, while Belmont Abbey improved to 5-3 in all games, 2-0 within league play.

Abbey shot over 65 percent in the second half, making 17 of its 26 shots in that span. The Crusaders finished 29 of 55 for 52.7 percent accuracy and went ahead for good on Kuhlman’s three-point play with 4:08 remaining.

“It was ridiculous,” 30th-year Barton head coach Wendee Saintsing said. “They outplayed us. We had too many defensive breakdowns, and they executed down the stretch and we didn’t. It’s as simple as that. They were better than us tonight.”

Kuhlman led all scorers with 29 points, while Fungate finished with 18 points. Downing posted a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds. 

As a testament to Abbey’s efficiency — or hubris — in the final minute, Fungate received a pass and drove down the paint in the vicinity of sophomore Shanika Peterkin, the Lady Bulldogs’ noted shot blocker.

But Fungate converted the layup to leave the Crusaders up 75-72 with 25 seconds to go.

Barton had an opportunity to tie on a 3-pointer from freshman Akira Wiggins, but it missed, leaving senior Kianna Wynn to grab the rebound. She went back up and was fouled, making both free throws to pull Barton within a point.

With 10.1 seconds to go, Barton fouled Kuhlman, putting her on the line. She made both, leaving the Lady Bulldogs down 77-74 and needing a 3-pointer to force overtime. Taking a timeout, Saintsing elected to advance the ball past midcourt with 10.1 seconds to go.

Inbounding the ball, Barton got the shot it wanted with junior Summer Baer, its 3-point specialist. But the clean look did not go in, leaving Downing to grab the rebound and make the free throws for the final margin.

“We talked about that all week long, which was to be able to just feel free and play,” Belmont Abbey head coach Jason Williams said. “Just make reads, and I’m trying to give our kids some confidence with just having the freedom to play basketball without having the hinderance and handcuffs to play in our system. Our kids did a fantastic job of making proper reads with that.”

Two players had double-doubles for Barton, with senior guard Dinah Neal getting 13 points and 10 assists. Wynn tallied 26 points and pulled down 11 boards.

Barton held as much as a 10-point lead in the second quarter at 31-21, but saw the lead dwindle before halftime. Wynn was fouled with one-tenth of a second left in the half, making both foul shots to send the Lady Bulldogs into halftime with a five-point cushion.

But it was a struggle to get the needed stops after that to remain undefeated.

“We’ve got to do things better,” Saintsing said. “Right at this time of the year, (Abbey) is a better team than we are.”