Travel Partner Week, despite offering some drama (thanks to three games in particular, we’ll get into that obviously), ultimately tasted very chalky with the favorites going unbeaten.
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There’s not a ton of terribly fresh insight to offer this week on IUPUI, as the Jaguars (or “Jagwires,” as at least two HLWBB teams’ ESPN+ play-by-play announcers call them) clocked a pair of very-much-expected blowouts over UIC by a total of 59 points. It’s probably worth mentioning that IUPUI’s leading scorer last week was not named Macee Williams, Rachel McLimore, or Rachel Kent, as Natalie Andersen – a player who always seems to knock down a ton of big shots whenever I watch the Jags – took her star turn. Andersen put up 15 and 18-point games, bolstered by a combined 5-for-9 line from three, to lead the way as IUPUI improved to 9-3 in the conference. Between Williams, McLimore, Kent, Andersen, Anna Mortag, and Madison Wise, Austin Parkinson has no shortage of players who can deliver in a big moment, a strength that will continue to serve them well.
Without a doubt the biggest moment of the week, and possibly the year when all is said and done, came from Youngstown State’s Megan Callahan. Callahan, who played at Robert Morris for four years of course, returned to the UPMC Events Center for the first time as a Penguin on Thursday and daggered her old team with a buzzer-beating game-winning three (see below). The final bomb was part of a 13-point encore in Hoop Township, while Lilly Ritz offered her usual 16 and 10 to the effort. If there was any concern about YSU being taken to the wire by a team with a losing record (though a deceptively good one), it was erased two days later at the Beeghly Center when the Guins broke free after halftime and coasted to a 61-44 victory, again largely fueled by Ritz (17 points, 18 rebounds). YSU will host Detroit Mercy and Oakland this week, with the resurgent Golden Grizzlies offering a strong test.
As mentioned, Travel Partner Week didn’t offer any upsets, but it did offer three extremely close calls, with the second of those causing a mild panic among Northern Kentucky fans. After encountering little resistance in a 77-59 win over Wright State on Thursday, a game highlighted by Norse freshman Khamari Mitchell-Steen’s 23 point, seven rebound breakout, NKU nearly stumbled in their return trip to the Nutter Center. The Norse led 62-48 halfway through the third quarter before the Raiders surged thanks largely to Ohio transfer Deesh Beck, who logged her first career double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds (as well as a pair of blocks). While NKU never faced a lose-win possession, as Youngstown State did prior to Callahan’s winner, they still needed Lindsey Duvall to knock down a couple free throws with six seconds left, as well as a final defensive stand, to secure the win.
While Chris Kielsmeier largely took a pass when I asked him if things felt normal again during Cleveland State’s pair of blowout wins over Purdue Fort Wayne, the simple fact is that they do kind of seem that way, at least from the outside. The Vikings have bounced back from a three-game losing streak bookended by COVID pauses and have now won three in a row in an impressive enough fashion to get the two opposing coaches involved – Kyle Rechlicz and Maria Marchesano – to declare CSU one of the conference’s front-line favorites. Nadia Dumas had arguably the best weekend of her career against the Dons, clicking for a personal-best-tying 19 points on her birthday on Thursday, then contributing to a staggering 52 points in the paint for the Vikings on Saturday. Destiny Leo offered a quiet 21 points in that second game as well, and both Barbara Zieniewska and Isabelle Gradwell showed well after struggling for large chunks of the season. CSU has a big opportunity for further validation this week when they travel to face UIC and IUPUI.
Oakland very nearly experienced complete disaster on Saturday, as the Golden Grizzlies were confronted by a heavily-motivated but winless Detroit Mercy team that went blow for blow with OU throughout the second Metro Series meeting and led by six early in the fourth quarter before the visitors pulled out a 66-62 win. Nevertheless acting coach Ke’Sha Blanton has continued to get improved production from all over the roster. Breanne Beatty helped down the Titans’ upset bid with 17 points on 6-for-14 shooting, while Aaliyah McQueen led four players in double digits with 15 during Oakland’s 30-point win over UDM on Thursday. The Grizzlies were also boosted by the return of all-league guard Kahlaijah Dean on Saturday. While Dean mostly just dipped her toes in the water in her first action since December 30th, it will be interesting to see if the group effort that carried the load during her absence can sustain itself or if things will fall back into the early-season pattern.
Speaking of complete disaster, is there any other way to describe Green Bay’s schedule at this point? I feel like I’ve beaten it to death already but just to recap things yet again, the Phoenix defeated Wisconsin on December 12th. They’ve played exactly three games since then: at home against Central Michigan on December 20th, then a road swing through IUPUI and UIC on January 6th and 8th. While Kevin Borseth’s team did endure a COVID pause wiping out two of their scheduled games, largely Green Bay’s opponents have been the issue, with Milwaukee last week becoming the latest culprit. The state system rivals did manage to reschedule their installments of Travel Partner Week for February 7th and February 21st, but UWGB will still have to go into this week’s trip to Wright State and Northern Kentucky off of seven more idle days.
For a very brief moment, Milwaukee held the title of Horizon League COVID champs, as the Panthers men’s team is the only conference member yet to go into protocol while on the women’s side, UWM was one of the last two teams left standing (with Youngstown State). That all went away last week, and unfortunately we’ll have to wait a little longer to see this season’s installments of a fantastic rivalry between teams that play very similarly to each other. Before that happens, Milwaukee will join Green Bay in the Cincinnati-Dayton area this week for games with NKU and WSU.
Robert Morris already has something that could probably be seen as a signature win, Cleveland State on December 30th, to its name, so the Colonials’ heartbreak against YSU on Thursday could simply been seen (by me anyway, though you’re more than welcome to join in) as the latest sign that RMU is a very solid squad hiding in a 6-10 team’s body. The Colonials play fantastic defense, and while they struggle on the other end quite frequently, the points they do get can come from a lot of different places (in the first game with the Penguins, Natalie Villaflor, Esther Castedo, Simone Morris, and Ashya Klopfenstein all tied for the team scoring lead with 12 points each). Once the schedule backs down a bit and doesn’t force RMU to play YSU three times and IUPUI once in a 15-day stretch, I fully expect the Colonials to string a few more wins together.
After nearly stunning NKU on Saturday, it’s sort of become fashionable to call Wright State one of those teams that nobody will want to face come conference tournament time, and there’s probably something to that. The Raiders still don’t have any real depth to speak of, but between Jada Roberson, Destyne Jackson, Channing Chappell from three, and now Beck they do have four players capable of blowing up at some point and if WSU can get three of them to hit at once…well, they were just on the verge of taking down an absolute wagon of a Norse team when that happened. Ideally of course, the Raiders will stack a few wins before the tournament to make their road to Indy a bit easier (and, it has to be said, overcome their four forfeit losses this season as much as possible), but the tools are in place for an honest run at it.
In Thursday’s loss to Cleveland State, Purdue Fort Wayne was hit with just about the last thing the team needed: a broken wrist to veteran point guard Riley Ott. While Ott often takes a back seat to the Dons’ other shooters like Shayla Sellers (who assumed point duties in Ott’s absence) and Sylare Starks, PFW runs a lot of sets that demand the organization of a strong ballhandler. Given the Mastodons’ personnel issues right now, which also includes an injury to Ott’s sister Ryin, it seems like PFW’s fate is to ride out the rest of this season as well as reasonably possible while continuing to build for the future. That future likely includes sophomores Amellia Bromenschenkel and Aubrey Stupp, both of whom had outstanding games on Saturday. One of the more mindblowing stats I saw last week came from Stupp, who played 29:40 in that 22-point loss, yet was a plus-2 during her time on the floor.
UIC’s pair of games against IUPUI is probably summed up best by Jaida McCloud’s stat line. The standout sophomore did not have a particularly good time while matched up with Williams during a lot of her minutes, totaling just 13 points and two rebounds over the weekend, and fouling out of the latter contest. The Flames, it should be said, did play reasonably well in stretches during their home game on Sunday, managing to stay within eight at the half, then clawing back within 10 midway through the third quarter on a Justice Gee jumper (it’s not much admittedly, but hey, they lost to the Jaguars by 38 on Friday). Is UIC ready for the MVC? No, but nobody’s paying me to make those decisions.
If nothing else, you really have to respect Detroit Mercy’s compete level. After getting absolutely clobbered by rival Oakland on Thursday, LaTanya Collins’ squad regrouped and very nearly pulled off what probably would’ve been the most stunning result of the conference season in the Calihan Hall half of the series, behind strong games from Irene Murua, Daija Moses, and Brandi Washington. Additionally, leading scorer Sydney Searcy has missed UDM’s last four games after a presumed injury against Purdue Fort Wayne on January 8th and it’s not hard to argue that she could’ve put her team over the top against OU. Unfortunately for the Titans, obvious opportunities to notch that elusive win this season are running low. A contest coming up on February 4th at UIC represents the next best chance in my estimation, as UDM took the Flames to overtime in their first meeting.