After months of anticipation, Northwest women’s basketball will take the court for the first time in the 2020-21 season, diving into the 22-game season Nov. 19 against Northeastern State in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Bearcat senior guard Mallory McConkey, along with the rest of the team, is exhilarated to lace up her shoes and begin conference play.
“I think we’re all just excited to play. You know, we’ve never had a season where there’s a chance you might not have a game,” McConkey said. “Every single week we’re just grateful for the opportunity to play, and we’re all just ready to go.”
The RiverHawks run a motion offense, an offensive scheme Northwest coach Austin Meyer has the women practicing against in preparation for the matchup.
“It’s a team you just have to be ready for. Motion is one of those things that you can go over in the scouting report and prepare for it to a certain extent, but you just have to find different tendencies,” Meyer said. “It’s completely random, and it’s a lot of movements, a lot of screens. Communication is going to be big and being focused the entire possession defensively.”
In last year’s matchup, the Bearcats fell behind early in the first quarter, but a strong second and fourth quarter led the way to a 62-40 victory.
The RiverHawks return their two top scorers from a year ago in seniors Cenia Hayes and Shae Sanchez. Hayes recorded 14.7 points per game, and Sanchez averaged 11.2 points per game.
“Hayes and Sanchez can shoot the ball from deep and shoot in transition,” Meyer said. “They play pretty fast and get out in transition. They do a good job with their motion and dribble-drive stuff as well.”
While Sanchez led the RiverHawks in scoring against Northwest a year ago with 12 points, Northwest’s defense held the ’Hawks to 32.7% shooting from the field. The Bearcats cleaned the glass as well, out-rebounding the RiverHawks 33-26.
This year, the RiverHawks received 37 total points in the Preseason MIAA Coaches Poll, resulting in a projected 12th-place finish.
A key factor to watch in this game is Bearcat senior guard Jaelyn Haggard. Sitting at 990 career points, Haggard has the chance to become the 27th Bearcat women's basketball player to reach the 1,000 point milestone.
“It’s exciting. It’s just one of those milestones that you don’t really try for until it’s there,” Haggard said. “I’m trying not to think about it — you know, no pressure — just going out and playing, and let what happens, happen.”
Haggard, who played in 27 games and led the team in 3-pointers with 66 made, while shooting 39.6% from beyond the arc, received high praise from her coach.
“She’s been great. She’s worked extremely hard going into this senior season and throughout this summer,” Meyer said. “She’s put in a lot of time, and she’s continued to improve each year. She’s on everyone’s scouting report and everyone knows what she can do. Just a really good kid who plays extremely hard and is a good of a shooter as there is.”
Shortly after the Bearcats face Northeastern State, they will have two days to travel to Claremore, Oklahoma, and prepare for Rogers State Nov. 21.
The 762 miles the Bearcats will travel on the road trip may seem daunting to some, but the women are embracing the opportunity to play when they weren’t sure if they’d get that.
“We’re all pretty excited. Having the first two games on the road, I don’t know why, but we as a team usually play better on the road than at home,” McConkey said. “I mean, I’m just excited to get to play.”
Rogers State finished 13th in the MIAA standings during the 2019-20 season, and they are projected to finish in that same spot again after the voting of the Preseason MIAA Coaches Poll.
Rogers State welcomes back seven letter winners from last season, which includes six players who have starting experience. These starting players will look to contribute more and find ways to score against a tough Bearcat defense.
In last year’s matchup, Rogers State lacked a scoring threat and was held to 48 points. That allowed Northwest to have a field day on defense, along with a 63-48 victory.
The Bearcat defense combined for 11 total blocks against Rogers State last season, with redshirt freshman Jayna Green contributing five of those blocks.
While shooting 39% during the game, Northwest relied on its points from the charity stripe, making 16-17 shots from the free-throw line. Free throws have not been a struggle in recent seasons for the Bearcats, as they ranked fifth in free throw percentage among Division II last season. Haggard made 90.9% of her free throws last year, and senior guard Kylie Coleman closely followed suit, making 90.2%.
With six seniors and nine underclassmen on the squad the Bearcats believe they have enough experienced players and resilient newcomers to make a statement.
“Our seniors, we’ve been down this road before and we’ve been here together all four years, so we know each other’s strengths and we know how to play to that,” Haggard said. “I think this year is going to be one of our best years yet, and I think we’re excited to build off this chemistry we’ve already established and incorporate our underclassmen who are tough too.”