It's time to find out just how good the Northwest Missouri State women's basketball team is this year.
Northwest has been one of the biggest surprises in the MIAA to this point, starting 8-2 overall and 2-0 in the league, but its schedule gets a lot tougher during the month of January with six of its first seven games away from home, all against teams picked above them in the MIAA.
The telling stretch begins tonight against Missouri Southern at 5:30 p.m. in Joplin and continues Saturday against No. 17 Pittsburg State at 1:30 p.m.
Northwest went a combined 0-4 against those teams last year.
Rust could factor heavily into the matchup with Southern since both teams have been idle for the last two-plus weeks.
Northwest's last game was Dec. 17 against Midland Lutheran at Bearcat Arena. Southern's was two days before that against Harding (Ark.).
Neither team has played a conference game since Dec. 8.
The Bearcats carry a four-game win streak into play, with the last three of those coming at home by an average of 24.3 points. They beat Lindenwood to start conference play by 29 points and followed that up with a 67-56 win over Nebraska-Kearney.
Already, they've won two more games than last year when they finished at the bottom of the MIAA, a game behind the Lions.
Missouri Southern (6-3, 0-1) won six of its first seven games before dropping its last two to Truman State (72-62) and Harding (72-53). It's most impressive win was against Drury 62-59 Dec. 1 at home.
The Lions and Bearcats share one common opponent—Southwest Minnesota State.
Northwest drilled Southwest Minnesota 93-46 at the Winstead-Reeves Classic. Missouri Southern had a much tougher time in a 73-64 win Nov. 10 at the Pitt State Tip-Off Classic.
Statistically, Northwest appears to be a more complete team.
The Bearcats lead the MIAA in steals per game (14.2), rank second in scoring defense (52.5 ppg) and second in field goal percentage (.452).
They currently have four players averaging in double-figures led by junior guard Meridee Scott at 11.7 points per game.
Their next three leading scorers are sophomores Ashleigh Nelson (11.4 ppg), Maggie Marnin (10.6 ppg) and Annie Mathews (10.4 ppg). Freshman guard Tember Schechinger is just shy of averaging double-figures at 9.6 points per game.
Four of Northwest's top five scorers are shooting better than 50 percent. Marnin is second league-wide in that department at 62.3 percent and is coming off a season-high 19 point effort against Midland Lutheran.
Southern is shooting 45.1 percent as a team—third-best in the MIAA—but ranks ninth in both scoring offense and defense.
The Lions are second in defensive rebounding and third in rebounding margin.
Page 2 of 2 - No one for the Lions averages in double-figures, but they have five players scoring between seven and 10 points per game.
Junior Shonte Clay, a 6-2 center, is Southern's leading scorer and rebounder with 9.4 points per game and 5.6 rebounds per game. She transferred to Southern from the University of Minnesota where she saw action in 11 games over two years.
All-MIAA senior forward Erin Rice has been coming off the bench and averages 8.1 points per game.
Junior college transfer Dominique Mosley, a 6-1 forward, averages 8.0 points per game.
Junior guards Jolee Sharp (7.7 ppg) and Shatara Stone (7.6 ppg) are the Lions other two main scoring threats.