|Purdue Fort Wayne
Cleveland State’s win over Wright State on Wednesday wasn’t particularly memorable, but given that it completed a trilogy of results against the Raiders, Green Bay, and Purdue Fort Wayne over an eight-day stretch, it certainly got the job done. Colbi Maples was spectacular in the 71-59 victory, offering 16 points, five assists and two steals to the effort, while also serving as an important part of a defensive effort that held WSU superstar Alexis Hutchison to ten points – though CSU did allow the Raiders to attempt 34 three-pointers. The Vikings are now six wins away from the first conference regular season title in program history, with none of their remaining opponents currently sitting higher than sixth in the Horizon League standings.
Similarly, there were flaws to Green Bay’s week, though the Phoenix ultimately came away with decisive wins against Northern Kentucky and IUPUI. The game against the Norse on Thursday was kind of a bizarre affair, with the Norse jumping out to an early 15-4 lead. Green Bay eventually rallied to go up by three at the half, then came out of the break with a 15-0 run to put the contest in comfortable territory. They started on time against IUPUI two days later, grabbing a 10-0 lead before the Jags got off the bus and holding that advantage the rest of the way. Somewhat quietly, Natalie McNeal is putting together a robust HL player of the year case – after 38 points and 31 rebounds over GB’s two games last week, she now ranks sixth in the Horizon League is scoring (16.0) and third in rebounding (7.7) during conference games.
Wright State bounced back well from their mid-week defeat at the Wolstein Center, holding serve against Purdue Fort Wayne at home to take over third place in the standings. The Raiders’ bomb squad was back on point against the Mastodons, as WSU connected on ten of their 25 deep balls, including 3-for-5 lines by both Kacee Baumhower and Layne Ferrell. Hutchison bounced back as well with 22 points, while underrated Rachel Loobie added 12, including a couple massive free throws in the final minute against PFW after grabbing an offensive rebound, along with 11 other boards. At 3.5 games behind Cleveland State and Green Bay (and with all head-to-head opportunities now in the past), the Raiders won’t finish better than third, but they’ll likely receive an HL tourney bye, a home quarterfinal, and possibly, one more shot at the Vikings and Phoenix on a neutral floor. Things could be a lot worse than that.
It’s never fun to a) only play once during a given week and b) lose that game, but that’s Purdue Fort Wayne’s reality after their 70-66 defeat at Wright State on Saturday. Shayla Sellers was fantastic despite the result, with 23 points, nine rebounds, and a 5-for-8 line from three-point range. Five of those points came during a Mastodons rally from nine points down in the final three minutes, including a three that pulled the score to 65-63 with 1:08 left. However, PFW couldn’t get the subsequent stop, thanks to Loobie’s rebound and free throws that took away their best chance to complete the comeback. After Milwaukee and Detroit Mercy also lost, the Dons managed to hang on to fourth place by the slimmest of margins – though they’ll need to win home games against the Panthers and Titans this week to stay there.
Milwaukee’s loss to Northern Kentucky on Saturday was one of the bigger collapses of the season, given that the Panthers held a 64-53 lead with 3:43 left in the fourth quarter (ESPN’s always-entertaining win probability had Milwaukee at 99.5 percent in that moment). Nevertheless, while none of the teams in the middle of the standings have looked flawless, the Panthers are generally trending in a good direction. That was evident on Thursday, a thorough 73-54 win over IUPUI that saw six different UWM players score eight or more points, while holding the Jaguars to 29.8 percent from the floor. Grace Crowley, who went 10-for-10 against Youngstown State on February 3rd, leads the conference by converting on 68.1 percent of her field goal attempts (of players who try at least two per game), while Kamy Peppler’s 5.1 assists per game rank second.
It’s not necessarily alarming that Detroit Mercy lost to Youngstown State on Saturday – the Penguins are playing solidly of late – though that defeat was the Titans’ third in four outings since their upset of Cleveland State on January 27th. There might be a degree of difficulty argument to make with that skid, as road games against a similarly-hot NKU team and Wright State are also a part of it, but the fact remains that the Titans will have to do well with a difficult closing schedule to hold off YSU and Milwaukee for a first-round bye in the league playoffs. In a 68-49 victory over Robert Morris on Thursday, UDM played staggeringly-good defense for a long stretch of the game; early in the second quarter, the score was tied 15-15, but by the late third quarter, the Titans led 41-19. On the other side of the court, freshman Kamari Forrest had a breakout game with 13 points, the best total of her young career.
It’s somewhat unlikely that Northern Kentucky ends up anywhere better than seventh in the standings thanks to a massive early-season hole. Still, outside of the HL’s current top four, it’s hard to argue that anyone’s playing better ball than the Norse right now. After all, NKU has defeated Detroit Mercy, Oakland and Milwaukee over the last two weeks. Their most recent victory, against the Panthers at the Klotsche Center, arrived thanks to a stunning 12-2 run over the last 3:43, capped by Khamari Mitchell-Steen’s three with 51 seconds left that eventually stood as the winning points in the 67-66 result. Almost as notably, the Norse battled Green Bay closely in the first half before the Phoenix put the clamps on in the third quarter.
If not for NKU, Youngstown State would certainly qualify as the Horizon League team enjoying the biggest resurgence after a slow start to the season. The Penguins have now won three in a row, and five of their last seven, a run that includes impressive victories like Purdue Fort Wayne and Milwaukee. Most recently though, the Guins swept the suddenly-tough trip to Metro Detroit, besting Oakland and Detroit Mercy by six and five points. The OU contest saw an 85-point explosion from a Guins team that’s often struggled offensively this season, with all five starters hitting double digits, led by Shay-Lee Kirby’s 24 points (15 of them on three-pointers). Things reverted more to the Guins’ typical form on Saturday, though Kirby and Dena Jarrells still shot well enough from three to deliver an upset over the Titans.
Maddy Skorupski’s buzzer-beating bucket in overtime to help Oakland down Robert Morris might have been the play of the week in the conference (maybe along with Mitchell-Steen’s decisive three), though the well-executed play that saw the Golden Grizzlies clear the paint to isolate Skorupski on 5-4 Louella Allana, along with a nice inbound pass by Brooke Quarles-Daniels, shouldn’t be overlooked in the heroics. The win saved OU from the indignity of being the team that finally broke RMU’s long losing streak, but more importantly represented crucial standings positioning for a team that’s suddenly fighting just to play at the O’rena in the first round of the HL tournament. Part of that reality is thanks to a home loss to Youngstown State on Thursday despite great performances from Alexis Johnson and Markyia McCormick, as well as a defeat against NKU two weeks ago.
It’s hard to be too negative about any team that has a tough trip to Wisconsin, most do, but IUPUI is now just 3-11 in Horizon League play. With the improved fortunes of Northern Kentucky and Youngstown State, it’s unlikely that the Jaguars will be able to do better than ninth or tenth in the final standings, which would mean a trip to see – quite possibly – those Norse and Penguins in the first round of the tournament, or possibly even a team like Milwaukee or Detroit Mercy. Those daunting realities aside, the Jags did do pretty well against Green Bay, essentially playing the Phoenix pretty even until the late going after starting the afternoon behind 10-0. Katie Davidson was very good in a building where it’s tough to be very good, including 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting.
Robert Morris put together their best game in weeks at Oakland on Saturday, closing regulation on a 9-1 run over the final five minutes to force overtime before succumbing to Skorupski’s winner. Regardless, the defeat was the Colonials’ 12th in a row, dating to a win over IUPUI on December 29th. The good news is that RMU will get another shot at the Jags on Sunday, a reasonable chance to finally get back in the win column. The bad news is that the rest of their conference schedule reads like this: Green Bay, at Wright State, Cleveland State, Northern Kentucky. So, barring one of the biggest upsets of the season, Robert Morris will enter the Horizon League tournament as the tenth or eleventh seed. Simone Morris and Danielle Vuletich, two great players buried on a bad team, excelled against OU with 19 points and a double-double, respectively.
Player of the Week
Natalie McNeal (Green Bay)
The former Saint Louis Billiken, who played somewhat sparingly in her first season at Green Bay in 2022-23, has been a ruthlessly-efficient monster of late. Accordingly, she’s become an anomaly for a Phoenix program that typically has shared the offensive load with laser precision – her 30.7 usage rate during conference games is a full eight percent higher than anyone else on the team (for reference, Sydney Levy’s 25.3 percent led the way last year, but Maddy Schreiber, Jasmine Kondrakiewicz and Jenna Guyer were all at 23.6 percent or better).
Also considered: Shay-Lee Kirby (Youngstown State), Markyia McCormick (Oakland), Layne Ferrell (Wright State), Colbi Maples (Cleveland State)
November 28: Amellia Bromenschenkel (Purdue Fort Wayne)
December 5: Maddy Schreiber (Green Bay)
December 12: Mickayla Perdue (Cleveland State)
December 19: Danielle Vuletich (Robert Morris)
December 26: Alexis Hutchison (Wright State)
January 2: Cassie Schiltz (Green Bay)
January 9: Katie Davidson (IUPUI)
January 16: Mickayla Perdue (Cleveland State)
January 23: Brooke Quarles-Daniels (Oakland)
January 30: Jasmine Kondrakiewicz (Green Bay)
February 6: Mickayla Perdue (Cleveland State)