Northwest women’s basketball will pick up where it left off on its regular-season schedule, 12 days since the last matchup due to COVID-19 protocols within the program.
Third-year coach Austin Meyer is preparing his team for five games in a nine-day span, beginning Jan. 14 against Fort Hays State in Hays, Kansas.
Due to athletes contracting COVID-19 within the Bearcat program, Meyer will have to use a depleted roster, one that could consist of only seven available players.
“The goal this year was to try and play the game safely, so if we show up with seven, then we’ll roll with the seven,” Meyer said. “Different opportunities for different people, and that’s a part of a team. When people are out, next person up.”
Freshman forward Jillian Fleming is one of seven players able to make the weekend road trip and will have to step up in a big way for the Bearcats.
Fleming has been limited come game days due to a preseason foot surgery and has only three to four true practices under her wing. In a typical year, Fleming would be issued a redshirt, but the NCAA is granting athletes an extra year of eligibility from COVID-19, more so meaning this season won’t exhaust one of the allotted years of eligibility for players.
A depleted roster isn’t the only problem the ’Cats have come across in recent weeks, having faced a 12-day span of limited practices and no games to compete in.
“We’re at a tough battle right now. We have seven kids available, and then you talk about having a couple of kids in our rotation out for the season due to injury,” Meyer said. “We’re trying to have that balance of making sure we’re in shape but also making sure we’re staying healthy. I know it’s been tough on our kids from a mentality standpoint, but I think our kids have handled it great.”
Fort Hays (6-2) is currently sitting at fourth place in the MIAA standings, three games back from first. Last season, the Tigers won the only matchup between the Bearcats 70-59.
Hays senior guard Jaden Hobbs, a transfer from Oklahoma State, will have the attention of Northwest. Hobbs is averaging 16 points per game while shooting 55% from three, along with 40 assists to her 10 turnovers.
“They’re a really tough, physical team. Women’s basketball-wise in Division II, they’ve been one of the best programs in the country for a lot of years now,” Meyer said. “They have really tough, physical kids that go along with it. It’s going to be a challenge for sure, but we’re excited about it.”
In last season’s matchup, the Bearcats pulled to a 32-25 lead at halftime, but a cold shooting performance in the third quarter and lack of defense allowed the Tigers to score 45 second-half points, while the Bearcats were limited to 27 in the final 20 minutes.
To avoid history repeating itself, Meyer wants his team to come into the matchup ready to play all four quarters and will look for the hussle of players who haven’t seen the court much this season.
“We just need to go in there and be competitive and play tough. We played Pittsburg State after break and with the time off we had, we felt like we didn’t have a lot of energy and became passive,” Meyer said. “From an offensive standpoint, we’ve gotten a lot better at the efficiency part of it.”
Northwest will travel to Kearney, Nebraska, Jan. 16, to face No. 5 Nebraska-Kearney. The Lopers sit atop the MIAA standings, two games ahead of Central Missouri.
The Lopers are an experienced and deep team, with eight athletes being juniors or older. Kearney coach Carrie Eighmey took a struggling Loper’s program five years ago and made them a tough opponent in the MIAA.
The key to avenging a last season loss to the Lopers will start down low, where Kearney junior center Brooke Carlson spends most of her time. The 6-foot, 1-inch post presence averages 9 points per game and is shooting 49% from the field.
Bearcat senior guard Jaelyn Haggard knows the Lopers will prove to be the biggest challenge so far in the season, and is looking to capitalize on what her team has been practicing.
“We have to play our basketball and play as a team,” Haggard said. “We need to worry less about what other teams do and focus in on what we do best. As long as we can compete to the best of our ability and do what we do, we have the capability to win.”
Defending the perimeter will also be of importance for the Bearcats. Every athlete on the court for the Lopers is capable of hitting a three, including Colorado transfer guard Haley Simental and junior forward Elisa Backes. Carlson, Simental and Backes combined to shoot 7-for-16 from behind the arc Jan. 9 against Central Missouri.
The hectic week will continue Jan. 19, when Emporia State travels to Maryville for the Bearcats’ third game in six days. Through seven games, the Hornets sit within the top half of the MIAA standings.
Similar to Fort Hays, the Hornets have a strong point guard in sophomore Tre’Zure Jobe. With the shortened schedule Fort Hays has been dealt, Jobe is making the most of it, averaging 24 points and shooting 43% from beyond the arc. Last year, Jobe was the women’s MIAA Freshman of the Year.
“Jobe is really quick, can get down low in the paint, good passer, shoots the three well and is really good off-ball screens,” Meyer said. “They have enough shooting around her that it keeps the floor spaced. She’s really good, and that’s part of it for us, is to continue getting better defensively as a team.”
The Hornets bring a little different style of play than what the Bearcats are used to. Northwest can expect a matchup zone, along with a full-court press throughout the game. Most of the teams the ’Cats face use a man-to-man matchup.
Last season, Northwest lost the contest to Emporia State 79-66, and hasn’t picked up a win against the Hornets since 2009. In comparison to where Emporia State stands as a team, they lost to Kearney Nov. 19 by 5 points 59-54.
“We know they are a good and top-tier team. Teams like them and Kearney are teams you can’t just walk in and expect to win,” Haggard said. “We have to give them our best shot defensively and play all 40 minutes.”
With the second half of the regular season underway, the Bearcats are excited for the challenges that await them.
“We’re excited for the opportunity to grow and continue to get better. We have a close team, and I feel like our culture has continued to grow,” Meyer said. “We just have to fine-tune the little things and keep improving from a player development standpoint.
"At this point, right here right now, just get somewhere and play a game.”