Hide the children, it’s officially crunch time with only three weekends of regular season play remaining.
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Macee Williams hauled down 13 and 19 rebounds in IUPUI’s home wins against Oakland and Detroit Mercy to pass Jernisha Cann as the program’s all-time leader, a distinction she can place next to the program scoring record she grabbed late last season. While Friday’s game with the Golden Grizzlies was tight throughout the first half, the Jags used a late third quarter run to build some separation before ultimately winning by eight – the team’s tenth win in a row, a streak that turned into 11 with the expected rout over the Titans on Sunday. Although Austin Parkinson’s squad has one of the tougher remaining schedules in the league (highlighted by a game at Northern Kentucky this weekend, a rematch of IUPUI’s only on-court conference loss this year), it doesn’t seem like a whole lot is slowing them down at this point.
It’s not at all fair to say that Youngstown State was skidding, but when a team that was recently 12-1 in the conference loses two in a row, it feels like kind of a big deal. Nevertheless, YSU recovered nicely from an upset loss at home to Oakland two weeks ago and a double-overtime heartbreaker at Green Bay on Thursday to salvage their Wisconsin trip with a come-from-behind win against Milwaukee. On a team that seems to have a different shooter get hot every game, it was Lindsey Mack’s turn against the Panthers, as the senior went 4-for-7 from behind the arc on the way to a team-high 16 points. The Guins, like IUPUI, still have a tough road ahead (the two teams play each other in The Jungle during the final weekend of the regular season, in fact), but suffering fewer COVID disruptions than anyone else in the league presents a nice advantage now in the form of more wins than most other three-loss teams.
If I told you Saturday morning that Destiny Leo would go 0-for-13 from the field against Northern Kentucky that afternoon with no other information offered, would you give Cleveland State any chance whatsoever in that game? I wouldn’t. Yet, as we now know, the Vikings managed to take down the Norse with exactly that line from Leo thanks to an underrated defense stepping up in big moments and on NKU stars Lindsey Duvall and Ivy Turner, who were held ten points under their combined scoring average. Chris Kielsmeier’s grinders, Nadia Dumas, Amele Ngwafang, and Deja Williams, led the way for CSU on both ends of the court, showing layers of depth that may be a surprise to some observers. In securing a season sweep over the Norse, CSU now has a leg up on a key seeding competitor and is squarely back on the rails after a disastrous trip to IUPUI.
If you haven’t noticed, Green Bay has been absolutely tearing people up since coming back from their three games in 47 days disappearance a couple weeks ago. The Phoenix have won their last four contests (their current streak is five overall if you go back to January 8th), including NKU by nine on the road two weekends ago, as well as a double-overtime effort against Youngstown State on Thursday, thanks to a suffocating defense that denied YSU on three potential game-winning final shot possessions (and plenty of other times as well). On Saturday, UWGB dummied a tough RMU team by going on a 25-0 run after the Colonials had taken a 3-0 lead in the game. In short, the Phoenix have gone from “out of sight, out of mind” to a bona fide title contender in recent weeks, thanks in part to a manageable closing schedule.
Not too long ago, Northern Kentucky was on a ten-game winning streak. However, they’re now just 2-2 over their last four games after thumping UIC and Purdue Fort Wayne but losing both of their meetings with other top-half teams (not so coincidentally, the two immediately in front of them in these power rankings). NKU still has one of the league’s most talented rosters, and they’re still, as mentioned, the only Horizon League team that’s taken IUPUI this season. The bad news is that they’re now one loss behind the top four in the standings and will have to be close to flawless from here to have a shot at the regular season title. Consecutive games coming up against IUPUI at BB&T Arena on Saturday and on the road against Youngstown State next Friday will tell a lot of that story.
Oakland was hit with their second in-season transfer portal departure last week when Alona Blackwell joined up with Olivia Sims at the virtual train station. While Blackwell was a key figure in OU’s six-player win at Purdue Fort Wayne on January 6th, she’d been buried for a lot of the season and her departure was ultimately fairly unsurprising. On the court, Oakland did a pretty nice job hanging in with IUPUI until being done in by scoring droughts during the second and third quarters. Kahlaijah Dean still isn’t quite back to her regular workload, but she did manage 13 points in 23 minutes against the Jags, followed by 11 in another 23 minutes in a win over UIC on Sunday. At 9-5 in the conference, the Golden Grizzlies are likely out of the regular season title chase, but they still have a chance of sneaking into one of the top four seeds with a strong finish. At the very worst, earning a home game against an extremely manageable opponent in the first round seems like a lock at this point.
All in all, Milwaukee had a decent weekend at The K, first laying the wood to a Robert Morris team that looked poised to possibly pass them in the standings, then coming up just short against conference co-leader Youngstown State in a game UWM led well into the third quarter before going cold, ultimately losing by just four. Sydney Staver scored 17 and 15 points in the two games on a combined 12-for-22 from the floor, an encouraging sign for a Panthers team that’s always looked to be a consistent shooting threat or two away from taking enough pressure off Megan Walstad to really be able to do some damage offensively. Milwaukee jumps right back into action today with a rescheduled game against archrival Green Bay, kicking off a dense closing slate.
Don’t look now, but Purdue Fort Wayne has been playing some pretty good ball of late. I’d argue that the Mastodons were showing signs of it as early as their back-to-back games against Cleveland State a couple weeks ago, and while it hasn’t always shown up in the final score, sometimes it has – the latest example being Saturday’s crushing of Wright State, an 83-58 result marred by an injury to star guard Shayla Sellers that halted play for a half hour. Though Sellers’ status is unknown as of this writing and Riley Ott remains out, the Dons’ play of late has been fueled by some new names: Audra Emmerson, Aubrey Stupp, and Amellia Bromenschenkel. Emmerson led PFW with 19 points against WSU, though the more telling statistic might be that the trio of a 5-7 player and two 5-11 players grabbed 26 rebounds in the game.
Just when it seemed as though Robert Morris was ready to take another big step forward, the Colonials learned firsthand about one of the Horizon League’s unique horrors: the Wisconsin trip (during last year’s COVID-affected schedule, RMU did play a pair of games at Milwaukee but avoided Green Bay altogether). Not only were the Colonials blown out by both UWM and UWGB by 20 and 16, they lost leading scorer Esther Castedo, who didn’t participate against the Phoenix. Road games against Cleveland State and IUPUI still await RMU, as well as a game with NKU at the UPMC Events Center, as the Colonials try to tie down a home game in the conference tournament, likely against Purdue Fort Wayne.
There was a time, in the very recent past, when it looked like Wright State might be able to wriggle out from behind a few of its early-season COVID forfeits and make a move on teams like Robert Morris and Purdue Fort Wayne in the standings race. After all, it was only a little over two weeks ago, on January 22nd, when the Raiders took one of the conference’s best teams, Northern Kentucky, to the wire. Since then though? Womp, womp. After that loss to the Norse, WSU hosted the Wisconsin teams and lost by 22 and 25. Then, on Saturday, they were clobbered by a Purdue Fort Wayne team that was missing two of its top players for most of the game. Suddenly, for Kari Hoffman’s 2-13 (1-13 Horizon League) squad, it seems like the goal needs to be adjusted to simply getting to the finish line in one piece and continuing to rebuild the program.
Feel free to think I’m crazy for continuing to place Detroit Mercy ahead of UIC in these power rankings. You know who doesn’t think I’m crazy? The NCAA Evaluation Tool. Yep, that’s right – out of 356 Division I teams, the Titans ranked 331st in the NET rankings (in Saturday’s edition), ahead of the Flames’ 336. The fact that UDM is the highest-ranked winless team (and ahead of a bunch of teams that have won a game) says a lot to me, because I’ll continue to argue that LaTanya Collins and company deserve to have at least one win this season. On Sunday, the Titans were probably more competitive than most expected them to be against IUPUI, and I’ve mentioned their unfortunate run of games where they were tied or ahead in the fourth quarter many times in these posts. UDM will play a rescheduled game at UIC on February 14th to settle this 11th vs. 12th question once and for all, while Purdue Fort Wayne (February 17th) and Wright State (February 24th) are also possible victories remaining.
In their only game of the week, UIC managed to hang in with Oakland, at least to some degree, before eventually losing by 12. It really is a shame that the Flames are such a bad team, if only because that fact is obscuring what a special season Jaida McCloud is continuing to have. McCloud scored 27 points and grabbed eight rebounds against the Golden Grizzlies, and she ranks among the top ten percent of players nationally in both categories despite playing for a team with minimal depth where she’s the obvious focal point. The sophomore, of course, remains one of the national leaders in free throws made (5.6, 10th) and attempted (7.6, 7th) per game.