GUYS! GUESS WHAT! We played every single HLWBB game as scheduled last week. I’m so happy right now that I don’t even care about how I may die trying to drive to a basketball game during a snowstorm on Thursday.
|Purdue Fort Wayne||9||10||+1|
After IUPUI thumped Cleveland State on Saturday, I was surprised when I saw that the Jaguars have now won nine games in a row, because it didn’t seem like their loss to Northern Kentucky on New Year’s Eve was all that long ago. It was though, both chronologically and definitely metaphorically. The Jags haven’t always been quite as dominant as they were against CSU – their other games against teams with winning conference records during the streak were a pair of home wins by a combined five points against the Wisconsin teams, and the miraculous comeback against Youngstown State – but they’ve nevertheless taken on the look of the team that everyone rated as a runaway conference favorite in preseason. The squad also got a boost this week from the return of Destiny Perkins after missing the previous three weeks, as she buried four three and handed out six assists against the Vikings.
Youngstown State blew a ten-point lead late in the third quarter against Oakland on Sunday, dropping a 56-52 decision to the Golden Grizzlies after clocking the expected win over Detroit Mercy on Friday. While that’s not a disaster in and of itself, OU has played very well over the last month or so, YSU’s closing schedule is a bit concerning. The Penguins end the regular season with six of their final eight away from the Beeghly Center, including the infamous Dairyland Delight, as well as games at Cleveland State and IUPUI. To make matters worse, their margin over the steamrolling Jags in the regular season title chase is down to one game in the loss column. So in that context, yeah, losing a home game against a team that lost to Robert Morris two days prior stings a bit. There’s nothing broken with the Guins, Lilly Ritz continues to be a player of the year frontrunner while Chelsea Olson and Paige Shy also had great weekends, but their circumstances right now are less than ideal.
Northern Kentucky finally saw its ten-game winning streak fall by the wayside on Saturday, with a loss to Green Bay at BB&T Arena (following a defeat of Milwaukee on Thursday) where the Norse were done in by a scorching shooting performance from the visitors (55.8 percent overall and 7-for-11 from three) while not burying their own three-point attempts (6-for-29). Those types of games happen from time to time, especially when playing good teams so, as with YSU, there’s no real reason to sound an alarm on NKU. However, at 8-3 in the conference, the Norse suddenly find themselves in the middle of what should be an absolute dogfight for the top four seeds in the conference tournament over the last four weeks of the regular season, with a vital road contest at Cleveland State coming up on Saturday. The Vikings, of course, gave NKU their last loss prior to the winning streak back on December 3rd.
If you claim that you knew what to expect from Green Bay as the Phoenix played just their fourth and fifth games since December 12th, you’re lying. The correct answer of course, and as we all now know, is that UWGB flew out of the gates like…well, like a team that was incredibly excited about the opportunity to play again, and collected an impressive road sweep of Wright State and Northern Kentucky – the latter game avenging an early-season home loss. Player of the Week candidate Hailey Oskey starred in both games with 22 points each time out, on a combined 16-for-27 shooting effort, while Sydney Levy, who has been MIA for a lot of the season, broke out with 24 points against WSU. There’s a case to be made that Green Bay’s shooting was unsustainably good over the weekend, but there’s also a case to be made that the Phoenix have largely been a case of “out of sight, out of mind” for the last couple months and that they deserve to be considered a serious contender.
There’s a certain feeling I get with Cleveland State this year. The Vikings are a very good team, I have no doubt about that. Bad teams don’t win road games against NKU and Milwaukee, and the talent up and down the CSU roster is evident. The problem is that, as Chris Kielsmeier pointed out following the Vikings’ blowout loss to IUPUI on Saturday, the team is consistently inconsistent, and the time to put it all together is running a bit short. CSU has championship potential, but it remains to be seen if that potential will be realized, or if they’ll wind up somewhere closer to the upper middle class of the standings, and in possession of a seed that makes a return trip to Indianapolis several degrees more difficult. Prior to Saturday, the Vikings did have a modest four-game winning streak since returning from their most recent COVID pause, and they’ll need more where that came from for home games against NKU and YSU in the next two weeks.
Who is Oakland? Are they the team that struggled to put away Detroit Mercy two weeks ago, then lost to Robert Morris on Friday, or are they the team that stunned first-place Youngstown State on Sunday by holding the Penguins to ten points over the last 12 minutes of the game? I’m not entirely sure, to be completely honest. What I do know is that they’re extremely fun. Ke’Sha Blanton has held this thing together with duct tape and paperclips at times, but it’s working to the tune of six wins in eight games. They have fun, they’re playing loose, they’re getting contributions from everyone from Kayla Luchenbach to freshman Kennedie Montue to Jack Jack, and they’re doing it without Kahlaijah Dean at full strength. The Golden Grizzlies visit IUPUI this week, and the Jags are obviously a team that tends to show you where you sit in a hurry (and they did, by 25 points in the first meeting), but doubt this group at your peril.
It’s a little bit stunning to check the Horizon League standings and see that Robert Morris is 7-7, with enough juice to formally abolish what a lot of people considered a pretty thick line after the consensus top seven teams (it’s also worth mentioning that the Colonials have had to play Youngstown State three times as part of that 7-7 mark, and were close in two of those three). Last week, RMU defeated Oakland and Detroit Mercy at home, a sweep that got a lot more impressive once the Grizzlies knocked off YSU two days after stopping in Hoop Township, to go along with their previous impressive conference win against Cleveland State. The Colonials are 51st nationally in scoring defense, right up there with Green Bay, IUPUI, and YSU, and when Esther Castedo gets to about 15 points or so along with some interior help from Sol Castro or Ashya Klopfenstein, they usually have enough offense to win. I don’t think their ceiling is much higher than this, but for a second year in a new conference, RMU is doing extremely well.
Last week, Milwaukee assistant coach DéRonté Polite tweeted “We close. Really close.” That may very well be true, he certainly knows better than I do. But, as with Cleveland State, the Panthers are running a bit short on time to show their true selves. At 7-5 and seventh in the standings, UWM would get a manageable home game in the first round if the conference tournament started today (UIC, at the moment), but would then face the prospect of traveling somewhere like Youngstown or Indianapolis for the quarterfinal round. That’s far from ideal for a team that began the season as the defending regular season conference co-champions, with aspirations of adding a playoff title. Since the end of November, Megan Walstad and company have beaten Robert Morris, Detroit Mercy (by forfeit), UIC, Purdue Fort Wayne, and Wright State of their conference games, while losing to Youngstown State, Oakland, IUPUI, Cleveland State, and Northern Kentucky. It’s hard to get much clearer than that.
Alongside pretty much everything Oakland did last week, easily the most surprising result across the entire conference was Purdue Fort Wayne absolutely battering UIC 88-61 on Saturday after losing 14 of their last 15 games contested on the court. The Dons remain without the Ott sisters, but the silver lining of their absence has been the way other players have stepped up for Maria Marchesano. Leading that list are Shayla Sellers and Aubrey Stupp, who combined for half of their team’s points against the Flames. Stupp, after scoring in double figures six times in her two-year career prior to two weeks ago, has now done it in three consecutive games while setting new career highs in each of the last two (ending on 22 in the UIC game). And oh, by the way, the tweener has grabbed 27 rebounds in her last four games. Meanwhile Sellers has found a way to continue producing while taking on increased ballhandling duties.
Just when it looked like Wright State might be set to make something of a push towards the middle of the standings, the Raiders crashed with a thud last week when the Wisconsin teams visited the Nutter Center, losing by 22 and 25. Suddenly you decide to look up WSU’s schedule, and you realize that their case is mostly “played competitive with,” as opposed to actual wins – Wright State still just has two of those, against Detroit Mercy and Division II program Lake Erie. At 1-12 in the conference (including four forfeit losses), it’s getting impossible to a scenario where the Raiders do anything other than finish in the bottom three, resulting in their season quietly ending in the first round of the Horizon League tournament on the court of a pretty good team.
I could probably just start copy/pasting my paragraph about Detroit Mercy in all of these posts, because just about every week the Titans play someone extremely tough and tease everyone with the possibility of a win before fading late. This time around, it was Robert Morris on Sunday, a game where UDM went blow for blow with the Colonials for most of the game and found itself in a 51-51 tie with 5:54 remaining in the contest before being outscored 17-5 the rest of the way. Irene Murua has been one of the conference’s better utility players all season long, while Brandi Washington has the potential to get hot from deep at any point and clear some space for an undermanned inside game. On Friday, LaTanya Collins’ squad will head to UIC, its latest best opportunity to grab a win.
Yes, I know that UIC has won games this season while Detroit Mercy hasn’t, two of them in fact. I also know that one of them involved the Flames defeating UDM in overtime, back on December 4th. But the simple truth is that this is a team that’s played poorly enough to make their imminent departure to the Missouri Valley Conference addition by subtraction for the Horizon League. They’ve managed to play competitive games here and there (one of them came on Thursday against CSU, it should be said), but more often, they’re getting run out of the gym against opponents ranging from IUPUI and the upper crust of the conference to, now, Purdue Fort Wayne. There are serviceable parts in Chicago to be clear, Jaida McCloud is obviously one, and I really like the rest of the team’s inside game with Leah Yarbrough and Ky Dempsey-Toney as well. But the unit as a whole is severely lacking.