Northwest women’s basketball entered 2021 looking to move past the first half of the season, time in which true freshman forward Jillian Fleming and redshirt freshman Emma Atwood were out due to injury. Those obstacles were accompanied by multiple postponements on behalf of the women after having at least one positive COVID-19 test among the program.
However, 2021 continues to put adversity on the Bearcats. More positive COVID-19 cases within the Bearcat program postponed its second and third game in the new year. Northwest senior guard Kylie Coleman suffered an ACL injury Jan. 19 against Emporia State, one that effectively ended her season.
The inconveniencies made Northwest coach Austin Meyer switch rotations, including a starting lineup that included three freshmen Jan. 23 against Central Oklahoma.
Senior guard Jaelyn Haggard is playing fewer minutes, as she is building back her stamina from being out due to COVID-19. Freshmen are tallying key minutes, particularly guard Molly Hartnett, who played 38 of the 40 minutes against Central Oklahoma.
While Northwest has faced hardships, 2021 showed some hope for good things to come. The Bearcats picked up a 57-47 win over Newman Jan. 21 in Bearcat Arena, their first victory since Dec. 12.
The ’Cats are coming off three games in five days, a stretch that began Jan. 19. The slate proved to be a challenge for the freshmen, but Meyer is proud of what he’s seeing from his underclassmen.
“They’re giving us everything. A couple of them with CK (Caely Kesten) and Jillian (Fleming), they just need extended practice time, which they haven’t had, and time to be on the floor,” Meyer said. “They play extremely hard. … They’re all really good players. Jillian is probably playing a lot more right now than we would’ve anticipated coming off an injury, but with the injuries we’ve had, they’re thrown into the mix.”
A lineup consisting of three freshmen and one sophomore would be detrimental for some teams, but fighting down to the wire against Emporia State and picking up a win at home proved the Bearcats are continuing to gel.
“We (underclassmen) feel like we fit in really well. I mean, the team welcomed us with open arms,” Hartnett said. “Everybody competes and everybody works for those minutes, and Meyer just gives us the opportunity to get in there.”
It doesn’t get easier anytime soon for Northwest, with another three games in five days on the horizon. This time the ’Cats will venture away from Bearcat Arena. The slate begins Jan. 28 in Jefferson City, Missouri, to face Lincoln.
Lincoln (0-12) has been unable to find its stride halfway through the season and the Blue Tigers could be in serious trouble when the Bearcats come into town. Northwest is 15-5 against Lincoln all-time and has won 8 of the last 10.
The ’Cats beat Lincoln 85-55 Dec. 5. That matchup was led by Atwood with 16 points and Coleman with 14. With both players out this time around, Northwest will have to find another way of scoring from its depleted roster
“Yeah, it’s just been weird. You know, you talk about it being the COVID year and how uncertain everything is and how crazy it is, then you throw three injures on top of it,” Meyer said. “For us, it’s just, let’s just try to find ways to get better every day. I really do feel like our kids are competing. … We’re getting kids more minutes and that’s only going to help the development overall.”
The defense has been a focal point for the Bearcats this season, something Hartnett agrees will need to be at its best against Lincoln.
“I think we strive to get better at defense every game. We just want to take it to another level and play one possession at a time and keep getting stops,” Hartnett said. “It’s something coach Meyer emphasizes all the time, but I think we’re taking steps in the right direction.”
The Blue Tigers bring in three players averaging double-digit scoring totals. Sophomore guard Niyah Jackson leads the team with 15 points, while freshman guard AJ Bradley and junior forward Deija Jackson average 12 and 11, respectively.
Northwest will travel to face Central Missouri (10-2) Jan. 30 in Warrensburg, Missouri. The Jennies sit two games back from first place in the MIAA standings, losing their two games by a combined 16 points. Last season, they won the MIAA tournament
Central Missouri’s senior forward Nija Collier is one of the best post players in the MIAA and is averaging 13.5 points. She is also fifth in the MIAA for rebounds, bringing down more than 7 boards per contest. Her experience makes her tough to guard and could prove to be an unstoppable force against an undermanned Bearcat defense.
“Post defense is going to be big. Nija Collier and Kelsey Johnson (Central Oklahoma’s senior forward) are probably the two best in our league,” Meyer said. “We’re going to have to have another effort like we did against Central Oklahoma from Jayna (Green) and whoever may be guarding her. Going in there and competing, we know it’s one of the toughest places to play.”
The Multipurpose Building where the Jennies play basketball stands to be a monumental advantage. Last season, Central Missouri went a perfect 13-0 at home and is 5-1 so far this season. This is a daunting quest for the Bearcats, but they believe they have a shot at securing a victory.
“They’re a really good team. And especially with two of our starters out, it’s going to be a tough game,” Hartnett said. “I think we can compete and stay in it again. It’ll be a challenge, but I think we can do it.”
Hartnett stated the Bearcats could stay in it again, referring to Dec. 3 when the Jennies came to Bearcat Arena and won 58-49. The 9-point victory for Central was its second-lowest scoring total of the season.
The last game of the slate will be Feb. 2 in Joplin, Missouri, against Missouri Southern (4-8). This will be the first matchup between the two teams this season, but last season the Lions won both contests.
Senior guard Carley Turnbull will have the attention of the Bearcats as she’s averaging a team-high 14 points for Southern.
With the MIAA lowering the number of teams to be allowed in the conference tournament from 10 to eight, the Bearcats know every game from this point matters, especially sitting right on the line as the current No. 8 seed.
“It’s important. We don’t look at standings a lot, but we’re just trying to find a way to get after it every day,” Meyer said. “It’s just about getting better every day, and we’ll get some desired results at some point.”