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Former Germantown Now girls basketball Player of the Year Taylor Higginbotham experienced many highs in her stellar, all-state career with the Warhawks that ended in 2015.

But nothing like she's experienced so far in just two years of college as she and her Western Illinois University teammates just finished off a record-setting year that included both Summit League regular-season and tournament titles; a school-record 26-7 mark; and a first NCAA tournament berth since 1995.

It followed up a a strong freshman season in which she started off as sixth man but became a starter midway through the year, eventually earning a spot on the Summit League All-Newcomer squad. She also earned a spot on the spring 2016 Summit League honor roll.

It's been a happy whirlwind for the explosive 5-10 sophomore shooting guard to say the least.

"I didn't expect any of this," she said. "I'm very excited and happy about it. That I was able to play as a freshman was amazing, and I was thankful for it. My coaches and teammates were very supportive.They really helped so much.

"This year, we expected to do big things, even though we lost two starters (to graduation) and a lot of scoring. We were only picked for sixth (in the league), and we wanted to prove everyone wrong."

Which the Leathernecks did. They turned in a 13-3 Summit League regular-season mark, good for the outright conference title.

It didn't come easily.

They had just lost to IUPUI for the second time on the season on Jan. 25, and that made every game going forward virtually a "do or die" kind of situation. Western Illinois responded well, winning its final eight regular-season games, starting it with a win at South Dakota and then closing it with a senior day victory over Dakota on Feb. 25 that helped secure the title.

"We took that second IUPUI game hard," Higginbotham said. "We knew we had to win the rest of our games. When we played that game at South Dakota (immediately following the IUPUI loss), they had the third longest home winning streak in the country, and we broke it (with an 86-78 win as Higginbotham had 16 points and nine rebounds). Then we were able to seal it (the conference) when we got them again at home (an 81-75 victory led by Higginbotham's 25 points)."

Eye on the prize

But the Leathernecks wanted that NCAA Tournament berth, and they wouldn't be able to secure it unless they won the Summit League Tournament and that meant they'd have to beat IUPUI.

They cruised past Denver in the quarterfinals (82-39) and then survived a thrilling, 84-82 semifinal over Omaha to get to IUPUI in the final.

The final featured a crazy, harrowing finish that Higginbotham played a big part in.

The Leathernecks had a one-point lead with eight seconds left, bu they missed two free throws and then fouled IUPUI, giving them the lead. Furthermore, IUPUI intercepted the subsequent inbounds pass, and the Leathernecks were forced to foul quickly.

After two more free throws, they were down three with just 2.2 seconds to go.

The end of regulation was a blur to Higginbotham.

She inbounded the ball to teammate Taylor Hanneman, who faked, dribbled once and then drained the center cut 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded to send the game into overtime.

"Oh my God," Higginbotham said. "Those last couple of minutes (of regulation) had every single emotion possible. I just passed the ball. We'd had a couple of buzzer-beaters this year, so I had a lot of confidence (in Hanneman)."

First berth

The Leathernecks took that momentum and ran with it, hitting three 3-pointers early in the overtime to take control as they earned their first NCAA tourney berth in 22 years with a 77-69 win.

"When Taylor hit that shot (to force OT), you could see IUPUI drop their heads," Higginbotham said, "and then we hit those three shots early in the overtime; I knew we had it. It was such a great feeling, I just couldn't hold it back.

"In high school, I always dreamed of making the (WIAA) state tournament (which the Warhawks couldn't quite do), and then you get to college, and you realize that it's even harder (to make the NCAA tourney).

"You have better players all over the place, and the regular season is just so hard and so is the (conference) tournament. So to do this is a dream come true.

"I couldn't wait until our name was called (on the NCAA selection show)."

The dream ended when the underdog Leathernecks ran out of gas in the second half against Florida State in an 87-66 NCAA regional first-round loss in Tallahassee, Florida, on March 17 as Higginbotham led Western Illinois with 20. The Leathernecks actually had a 19-12 first quarter lead, but the Seminoles outscored them, 55-37, in the middle two quarters to take control.

Higginbotham was a big part of the strong first quarter as she scored 12 of the team's first 14 points.

It finished a sensational sophomore season for Higginbotham as she averaged 14.3 points and 5.6 rebounds a game. She was a team leader in 3-pointers with 65 and also had 88 assists and 64 steals.

She already has 849 career points with two more years of eligibility left. Western Illinois will be in good shape again next season as the junior-dominated team had only two seniors, both role-players.

Higginbotham's high school coach, Matt Stuve, is not surprised by anything that she is doing. She left Germantown as the school's leading scorer having been subsequently passed by former teammate Kenzie Schmitz.

"She never shied away from the big time," Stuve said. "She always wanted the big shot, she always liked to compete against the best ... it's great to see a kid who was so important to us be a big part of something so great (like an NCAA tourney berth). We knew Taylor would do everything she could to be a success."

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