INA — Halftime came at just the right time for Janelle Cannon and the Southwestern Illinois Blue Storm on Thursday at the Region 24 Women's Basketball Tournament.
With an appearance NJCAA Division I national tournament on the line, Cannon rebounded from a frustrating opening 20 minutes with 27 second-half points as the Blue Storm rallied for a 82-76 semifinal win over host Rend Lake College.
The victory advances the Blue Storm to the championship game against Kaskaskia at 5 p.m. Friday. No matter the outcome, both teams will advance to the NJCAA Division I national tournament on March 18-23 in Salina, Kan.
Kaskaskia reached the championship game with an 85-79 victory over Wabash Valley.
SWIC, which trailed Rend Lake by as many as eight points late in the first half, tied the game at 48 with 13:56 remaining on a layup by Cannon.
But it wasn't until Cannon, a 5-foot, 9-inch Louisville recruit, scored on a fade-away jumper with 6:03 left that the Blue Storm (24-5) had the lead for good at 68-66 with just under six minutes remaining
Sophomore Danielle Duncan followed with a 3-pointer on the Blue Storm's next possession, increasing the lead to 71-66.
Rend Lake (15-15) closed to within 73-71 with 2:40 left on a pair of free throws by Tazonda Gibbs, but Cannon, who struggled from the free-throw line in the first half, canned eight consecutive free throws in the final 1:46 to clinch the win and a return trip to nationals.
A contender for NJCAA National Player of the Year, Cannon finished with 38 points.
"How frustrated was I in the first half? Very. I was getting hit and I wasn't get any fouls called and I missed some free throws,'' Cannon said. "At halftime, I just had to calm myself down and get refocused. When I came out and hit that first shot of the (second) half, I was fine.
"Being able to go back to the national tournament is great. Hopefully we can go out there and do better than we did a year ago.''
Bidding for its first national tournament bid, Rend Lake, led by former Nashville standout Jennifer Moeller, gave SWIC a battle for 40 minutes, but Cannon and the Blue Storm were not going to be denied.
"The difference in the second half was simple. Janelle scored,'' SWIC coach Mike Juenger said. "But I'm telling you a major factor this game was the way Breanna (Baker) rebounded. That was a key. She was terrible on the offensive end, but she did a job on the boards.
"Danielle (Duncan) hit a huge 3-point shot down the stretch, after I threatened to take her out if she didn't shoot the ball. But overall, this was a total-team effort. Everybody contributed to this one.''
Freshman point guard LaTeesha Deloach scored 13 points for SWIC, while Duncan added 12. Moeller, a strong 5-11 post player, topped Rend Lake with 23 points.
Moeller was nearly unstoppable in the first half, scoring 15 of her 23 points.
"We knew coming in that Rend Lake was an excellent team and playing on their home floor that they would be a handful and they were,'' Juenger said. "What does this mean to me? It means a lot. It means that Janelle (Cannon) has a chance to be player of the year in America. It means that a kid like Crissa (Washington) has a chance for a scholarship and it means that Danielle (Duncan) at age 26 will have a chance to play in a national tournament.
"This team has worked very hard to get back to nationals. They deserve this.''