Even more competitive with No. 6 Washburn than it was a week before, the Northwest Missouri State women's basketball team established yet again Saturday it could hang with anyone in the MIAA.
The end result—a 61-54 loss to the conference-leading Lady Blues at Bearcat Arena—represented progress at the close of a brutal stretch, but also extended Northwest's tailspin to five straight losses and six in their last seven games.
The last four have come against the Washburn, Fort Hays State combo, all by 12 points or less.
Under .500 for the first time all year, Northwest (11-12, 5-10) is now part of a three-way tie for ninth in the conference with Missouri Southern and Southwest Baptist. Washburn (19-3, 13-1) remained a half-game up on Central Missouri for the conference lead.
"We're taking steps," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Mark Kellogg. "We're really close. I want them to experience a big, big win and that was it. It was close and we didn't find a way. We'll keep plugging along."
Down by five at the half after scoring the game's first seven points, Northwest never completely lost sight of Washburn in the second half, but also never caught them.
Northwest's deficit sat in the 4-10 point range over the final 19 minutes, with the Bearcats unable to string enough stops/scores together to get within a possession.
"We just never put it together," said Kellogg. "They're just so good defensively it's hard to get three, four, five great possessions in a row. You may get one or two, but then they're going to buckle down and get you the next time. I thought we did enough defensively to kind of keep us in the game to give us a chance to make that run and we just never did."
Northwest's biggest window of opportunity to eat away at Washburn's lead came past the mid-way point of the second half. The Bearcats scored six straight to make it 46-42 and then had two possessions to get within two.
Both resulted in missed hook shots by sophomore forward Annie Mathews.
Washburn countered with two difficult, back-breaking shots from Laura Kinderknecht and LaVonda McCall to lead by eight with 6:55 left.
The first by Kinderknecht was a runner over Ashley Thayer near the end of the shot clock and ended a scoring drought of over three minutes.
"Every basket when you're down and needing ever stop, every one of them hurts," said Kellogg. "Every time they scored, it was just that much more you have to overcome. Against a team like that, it's hard."
Northwest stayed at least six points back of Washburn for the remainder of the game, although the deficit never touched double-digits again.
Page 2 of 3 - In the final minute, Washburn rebounded a Sierra Moeller missed free throw and turned that into two more free throws by McCall to lead 60-51.
A three by point guard Monique Stevens made it a six-point game again with 23.3 seconds left.
Northwest nearly came up with a turnover on the inbounds, but got called for a foul along the baseline.
Lady Blue forward Dana Elliott sank the first attempt, missed the second and again Washburn snagged the rebound.
The Bearcats elected not to foul, and the Lady Blues ran out the remaining time on their eighth straight win.
"Both times we played them, we could never pull away and we knew that," said Washburn head coach Ron McHenry. "They do it to everybody. They're really patient in that offense and they will grind you through that flex offense. They probably got 20 sets, so it's hard to scout and they execute it well."
Northwest out-shot Washburn from the field, the three-point line, the free throw line and had seven more rebounds, but all of those advantages were erased by a 26-13 disparity in turnovers.
The Bearcats committed 16 of those in the first half and finished with two more than they had at Washburn a week prior.
Stevens turned it over a season-high seven times, while Mathews was charged with six.
"We were trying to throw over 6-1 athletes instead of trying to fake it and throw under them or faking it low and throwing it high," said Kellogg. "We were trying to make lob passes over the top of them. We thought we were going to be little better this go around. They surprised us at their place a week ago. We should've been more prepared for that."
The Lady Blues converted a hand-full of Northwest's giveaways into uncontested layups and finished with a 26-10 edge in points off turnovers.
That was their most reliable source of offense in a game where they shot 23-59 (39.0 percent) and 5-18 (27.8) from three.
"That's a killer when you're in one of those halfcourt possession-type games," said Kellogg.
McCall (16 points) and Kinderknecht (14 points) were the game's two high scorers. Kinderknecht made her first four three-point tries and missed the last four, while the rest of the Blues went a combined 1-7 from three.
The Bearcats shot 17-40 (.425) from the field, 5-12 on three's and 15-18 at the foul line. They finished with under 60 points for the fifth consecutive game.
Stevens and Mathews each had 12 points to lead Northwest. Mathews just missed a double-double, grabbing nine rebounds.
Maggie Marnin also touched double-figures with 10 points.
Northwest held Washburn scoreless for the first 5:30 of the game and led 7-0 at the first media timeout.
Page 3 of 3 - The lead might have been greater were it not for six turnovers by the Bearcats during that stretch.
Washburn snapped out of its dreadful start offensively, running off 13 points in a 2:48 span.
Back-to-back three's by Kinderknecht gave Washburn its first lead of 13-10 with 12:06 left.
The Bearcats halted Washburn's surge after a timeout and took three separate leads over the next eight minutes, their final one of the game at 24-22.
Washburn scored the next nine points and went up 31-24 with 1:29 left in the half on a pull-up three from Kinderknecht in transition.
Two Alexis Boeh free throws to close the first half and a pick-and-roll layup by Marnin cut Washburn's lead to 31-28.
The Lady Blues answered with consecutive baskets off turnovers and kept at least a two-possession lead from then on.
"They're busting their butts," said Kellogg. "We just need to find some momentum, which at this point, needs to be a win. We can take a little momentum out of this one."
Northwest concludes a three-game homestand Wednesday with Missouri Western.
It's a game the Bearcats have to win in order to have a shot of finishing eighth in the conference and hosting a first round MIAA Tournament game.