After the opening week of conference play, Northwest Missouri State's women are in the best position possible.
Hosting another one of the MIAA's new league members, the Bearcats got off to a rare fast start and led from wire-to-wire in a 67-56 win over Nebraska-Kearney Saturday at Bearcat Arena—their third in a row.
This puts Northwest above last year's win total of six and sends them into a three-week break between conference games at 2-0 within the league for the first time since 2006-2007. Northwest (7-2, 2-0) opened conference play with a 69-40 home win over Lindenwood Wednesday.
"You're 2-0 and you play two games at home against two teams that supposedly aren't the better teams in the league," said Northwest Missouri State women's coach Mark Kellogg. "I want to keep this in perspective. Yea, we're 2-0. That's what we want to be at this point. We get a little bit of a break from conference, so you can't ask for anything better than being 2-0."
Notoriously a slow-starting team, Northwest bucked that trend by scoring the game's first 11 points.
The Bearcats converted on five of their first six possessions and gave up just two points before the first media timeout.
It was exactly the kind of start Kelogg was seeking after watching his team sputter in the first halves of the last two games.
"We had it up on the board before the game," said Kelogg. "What we want is to impose our will. That's kind of what we say. Like you're talking boxing, punch first. Don't wait to get hit. Make sure we punch first."
Nebraska-Kearney (3-5, 1-1) fired back with the next six points to make it 11-6, but that was as close as it would get.
Forcing 14 first half turnovers with their half-court trapping defense, the Bearcats grew their lead to as many as 17 points and went to the half up 34-19.
In the second half, Northwest's lead hit 21 points and never dipped below 10 points despite committing 14 turnovers of their own.
UNK turned those into 23 of its 37 second half points, allowing the Lopers to hang around the 12-15 point plateau.
"I felt like we were in control," said Kellogg. "I didn't like the second half at all. Other than the start of the first half, I wasn't completely loving it either. It was enough and we did keep them at bay, but we just got way too sloppy with the basketball. That was disappointing the way we closed."
UNK scored the first five points of the second half to make it 34-24, but Northwest answered with back-to-back baskets by sophomore posts Annie Mathews and Maggie Marnin.
Page 2 of 3 - From then on, the Bearcats countered every little mini surge by the Lopers with big three-pointers.
Back-to-back one's by senior guard Ashley Thayer staked Northwest to its largest lead of 49-28.
Junior guard Meridee Scott and junior point guard Monique Stevens each hit a triple with the lead at 12 points. A corner three by Tember Schechinger to make it 66-49 with under three minutes left finished off the Lopers comeback hopes.
Northwest was 6-12 from distance in the second half after going just 2-11 in the first half.
The six three's accounted for over half of their 11 field goals. The Bearcats were just 5-17 from inside the arc.
"I think we had an answer," said Kellogg. "When they cut it to 10 or 12 or whatever, we answered back, but we want to string those together and get three stops in a row, three buckets in a row then you blow it open where you get it to 19 or 20, then you're at 25 and you're probably done. Obviously, we didn't come out with any intensity to do that."
Sophomore guard Ashleigh Nelson finished as Northwest's leading scorer with 17 points, contributing 10 of those in the first half. Mathews reeled in a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds, a game after just missing out on one with 13 points and nine rebounds.
Also in double-figures was Marnin with 12 points on 5-8 shooting. Schechinger had nine points and seven rebounds, but also committed seven turnovers.
Scott and Thayer chipped in six points apiece.
"It's an inside-outside game," said Kelogg. "We have posts that can score. We have kids that can shoot it. We have a couple that can put it on the floor. We're at our best when we're using the inside players and working through the paint as much as possible."
Kearney's only double-figure scorers were Ivy Jones and Melissa Norman with 10 points apiece. Leading scorer Shelbie Zimmerman totaled just six.
Shooting 57.7 percent in the second half, Kearney finished at 46 percent but only made two, three-pointers, six less than Northwest.
The Lopers also never found a comfort zone against Northwest in the halfcourt and turned it over 25 times.
That makes 56 turnovers by Northwest's first two league opponents.
"That's what we try to do is just make it uncomfortable," said Kellogg. "We just want to take them out of any flow or rhythm that they can have offensively. The better we get, the more athletic we get, we will probably even rev it up another notch. But we're doing a pretty good job. Teams just aren't able to run their normal stuff against our normal stuff."
Northwest has the weekend off before hosting its final non-conference game against Midland University Monday night.
Page 3 of 3 - The Bearcats resume conference play Jan. 3 at Missouri Southern.