Meg Gallagher stood with an ice bag lapped over one hand, the other slapping as many Cal State Fullerton backs as she could reach. Odd thing was, it was Gallagher's back that was taking the bulk of the pats.
It was her clutch free throws during the last four minutes of Saturday's game against West Texas State that gave the Titans a 71-64 win and fifth place in the women's National Invitation Tournament at Amarillo's Civic Center Coliseum.
It was fitting that Gallagher, who led all scorers with 25 points and was named to the all-tournament team, would be one of the heroes in the Titans' first post-season tournament appearance. Throughout the season the senior had provided leadership in her quiet way. It was also apt that Fullerton's seniors each had key roles in the final game of their college careers.
The game was a typical gut-wrenching win for Fullerton (19-11), and a game in keeping with the bruising basketball played in this tournament. The Titans showed more composure than they had at any time this season.
"This is the best we have handled pressure all year," said Robin Holmes, who had 15 points. "We have succumbed to it in the past, but our team is pretty mellow, sometimes too mellow. We didn't have to calm anyone down today. We aren't emotional."
That's not strictly true. After leading by 11 points with 10:49 left in the first half, the Titans let their lead slip to six by half. The score was 38-32 at intermission. Fullerton Coach Chris Gobrecht, often a sideline pacer, began her arm-waving and eye-rolling about the same time as her team began its slide.
Gobrecht had expressed concern before the game about the atmosphere in the arena--West Texas is considered the home team and the Buffaloes travel with a pep band, cheerleaders and a hard-working card section.
Nearly all of the 450 boisterous fans at Saturday's game were wearing the maroon and white of West Texas.
Emotions were near the surface with 4:18 left in the game when Fullerton's Kim Beckhart was called for a foul. When she tossed the ball in the air in disgust, Beckhart was assesed a technical. (That made it one technical per game for Fullerton in the tournament.) West Texas took advantage to whittle Fullerton's lead to 56-59 with 3:56 left to play.
"The key for us during that stretch was to keep that three-point lead," Gobrecht said. "We did a great job of coping with the pressure. The seniors played really well for us."
It was two seniors, Gallagher and Linzi Phillips, and a junior, Holmes, who helped save Fullerton by hitting 13 of 15 free throws in the final 4 1/2 minutes. Phillips came off the bench to score 13 points and grab 10 rebounds.
For the seniors, Phillips, Beckhart, Gallagher, Teri Withers and Rhonda Weyer, it was an emotional experience. As they gathered outside the locker room after the game, the atmosphere of convivial camaraderie was tinged with sadness.
Most said they were sad to leave basketball but were looking forward to entering the work force and "finally making some money."
The five seniors laughingly described T-shirts the team had given them earlier this year: "Prisoners of Cell Block G," referring to taskmaster Gobrecht. And, before the final game, they were given shirts that read, "Paroled."
Louisiana State won the championship game, 74-54, over University of Florida. For third place, Texas Tech, the tournament's top-seeded team, defeated Drake, 96-74. Fifth-seeded West Virginia beat seventh-seeded Montana, 62-60, for seventh place. . . . In addition to Gallagher, named to the all-tournament team were: LSU's Natalie Randall (Most Valuable Player), Drake's Julie Fitzpatrick, West Texas State's Machelle Whitehead, Drake's Rhonda Ford, Texas Tech's Camille Franklin, LSU's Madeline Doucet, Florida's Keturah Bell, Texas Tech's Melinda Denham and Florida's Tammy Jackson Florida.