TERRE HAUTE —
With a win today in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament quarterfinals, Indiana State will secure its fourth 20-win season in women’s basketball since 1981-82.
Getting to that point has been like competing in one of those urban adventure races with obstacles, mud pits and scavenger hunts. In other words, it hasn’t been permeated with style and grace. But the Sycamores stuck with it and got the job done.
At least so far.
Coach Teri Moren’s Sycamores tied for a share of the regular-season title for the program’s second crown, but the goal has been to take the next step and earn the first NCAA tournament berth for ISU women’s basketball.
Senior Anna Munn said the Sycamores are working hard for one another and hope to avoid a second straight trip to the WNIT — to which the Sycamores have already earned an automatic berth if they are tripped up this weekend.
“We want to do it because we deserve it. We’ve worked so hard. We just want to leave a legacy with this team,” Munn said.
With seven new faces in the mix, Indiana State’s nonconference concluded with a disappointing 5-6 record.
With Chelsea Small and Stephanie Wittman added in late December, the Sycamores picked up steam. But the team’s cohesion was lacking at times at both ends.
That — combined with a two-game absence for Munn — resulted in a stretch of four losses in six games in the second half of the conference season. Among those was an ugly 25-turnover performance at Illinois State, where the Sycamores blew a late second-half lead.
One of the items on ISU’s scavenger hunt was to find an outside shooter to complement Munn.
The Sycamores found it when junior college transfer Jasmine Grier emerged. In her sixth start, Grier buried five 3-pointers to lift them to a 63-51 victory at Wichita State.
“We definitely had our ups and downs. We got ourselves back together, got ourselves back on the defensive end,” Munn said. “And Jas [Grier] stepping up with a lot of confidence and Qisy [Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir] being unbelievable at the point, I think we’re all just meshing together. And we have a lot of camaraderie that we didn’t have earlier in the season.”
Moren and the team just kept the Sycamores focused on daily improvement in practice and the results came at the right time.
“I think part of it was we weren’t naive to think we weren’t going to have some hurdles,” Moren said. “I think we have some good momentum right now. Our kids are playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
ISU’s offense has been extremely efficient down the stretch. The Sycamores have shot better than 48 percent in five of their past seven games.
“They’ve had a tremendous amount of patience. We’ve continued to work on that motion [offense]. At times, I wanted to scrap it, but we just hung in there and continued to work on it. We showed consistency in our work and it’s really paid off on the floor,” Moren said.
To reach the NCAA tournament, the top-seeded Sycamores need to add three more wins to their five-game winning streak heading into today’s quarterfinal game in The Family Arena at St. Charles, Mo.
The Sycamores’ two wins on the final weekend of the regular season against fifth-place Drake and third-place Northern Iowa give them the kind of momentum a coaching staff loves heading into a single-elimination tournament. They won when the pressure was at its highest.
“I don’t think anyone had the cards more stacked against them than our team did going into two very tough environments [against] two teams that can flat out score and find ways to win. We did it with our defense and rebounding,” Moren said.
Indeed. ISU is the conference leader in points allowed — ranking 45th in all of NCAA with a 60-ppg average overall — and rebounding margin.
But co-champion Wichita State is a stout defensive team as well. With guards Alex Harden and Jamillah Bonner and forward Michelle Price earning MVC All-Defensive team honors, the Shockers were the most disruptive team in the league, forcing 19.6 turnovers per game.
Harden, who shared the conference lead in assists with Abdul-Qaadir, also finished second in the league in steals (2.6 per game).
“She really had to take a leadership role. We had six new players this year. From summer conditioning this year, they really rely on Alex and they should. Alex’s leadership has really stepped up,” Shockers’ assistant coach Kirk Crawford said when filling in for head coach Jody Adams at this week’s coaches’ teleconference.
The Shockers are looking for a second straight NCAA tournament berth.
“The NCAA experience really helped us last year, in knowing what it takes to win the conference. They’ve all been there,” Crawford said. “They know what Jody’s expectations are. They know we’re going to be tested every night.”
The Shockers will play at 7 pm. EDT today against the winner of Missouri State and Southern Illinois.
Aces on a roll
Evansville’s eight-game winning streak makes it the hottest team in the league. That stretch included a 63-56 victory in Hulman Center for a team partially led by freshman Sara Dickey.
Dickey starred at Riverton Parke High School and has been a dynamite scorer for coach Oties Epps. Dickey finished fifth in the Valley during league play with an average of 17.3 points.
She also helped the Purple Aces defend the perimeter as well as any team in the league. Evansville finished as the league’s best field-goal percentage defense including holding opponents to 24.7 percent from the 3-point line.
The morale of our team’s at an all-time high,” Epps said.
With honorable-mention All-MVC forward Mallory Ladd in the lineup, the Aces are 10-2 in MVC play.
Size could be an advantage for the Aces in a first-round matchup against a high-scoring Drake team led by the league’s top scorer, Kyndal Clark.
“She’s probably the most underrated player in the Valley. She’s a leader, has an ability to faciliate and shoot from the outside. She’s also pretty good around the basket,” Epps said of Ladd. “I think that’s our advantage in this matchup. Drake has a lot of weapons on the perimeter. We’ll try to take advantage of our size and athleticism on the inside.”
An Evansville win would set up a rubber match between the Purple Aces and Sycamores at 2:30 p.m. EDT Saturday.
Moren assured that her ISU team would not be looking ahead. No. 8 seed Loyola beat Indiana State in the first meeting of the teams in Chicago.
No. 1 Indiana State vs. No. 8 Loyola
Tipoff — 1:07 p.m. EDT.
Broadcasts — TV: none. Radio: WIBQ-FM 98.5 Online:
Last time out — ISU won at Northern Iowa last Saturday by a score of 85-72.
Series — ISU leads 4-3.
Indiana State Sycamores (19-10, 14-4 MVC) — G Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir (5-4, Sr., 14.4 ppg, 4.9 apg), G Anna Munn (5-10, Sr., 12.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg), F Jasmine Grier (6-0, Jr., 4.9 ppg), F Marina Laramie (6-2, So., 9.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and C Racheal Mahan (6-1, Jr., 9.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg) are the starters. G Natasha Zurek (5-9, Jr., 2 ppg), F Chelsea Small (6.7 ppg, 17-41 3-pointers, 41.5 percent in 18 games), G Stephanie Wittman (4.3 ppg), G Kasey Johnson (5-8, So., 2.8 ppg), G Lashonda Littleton (6-0, Jr., 3.4 ppg), G Travecia Franklin (5-9, Jr., 1.8 ppg) and F/C Rhagen Smith (6-2, Fr., 2.1 ppg) are key reserves.
Coach — Teri Moren (198-128 in 10th season overall, 68-55 in fourth season at ISU)
Loyola Ramblers (11-20, 6-12 MVC) — G Lyndsey Booker (5-8, Sr., 2.4 ppg), G Becca Smith (5-8, So., 7.7 ppg), F Bailey Farley (5-10, Fr., 8.9 ppg), F Troy Hambric (5-11, Sr., 17.5 ppg) and C Courtney Lindfors (6-4, Sr., 6 ppg).
Coach — Sheryl Swoopes (11-20 in first year at Loyola)
Next games — The winner of Friday’s game advances to play the winner of No. 4 Evansville and No. 5 Drake in Saturday’s semifinals at 2:30 p.m. EDT.
— Craig Pearson