Of all the un-ranked teams to make it to the quarterfinal stage of the MIAA Women's Tournament in Kansas City, a strong case can be made that the least desirable one to play against right now is No. 9 seed Northwest Missouri State.
Following a five-game losing skid, the Bearcats (15-12) have reeled off four straight wins, lead the league in field goal percentage, employ a tough-to-navigate zone defense and have absolutely nothing to lose at this point going up against top-seeded Washburn today at noon in Municipal Auditorium.
The combination of all these factors makes Northwest an extremely dangerous team and provides real hope for a Cinderella-type tournament run.
"We're playing our best basketball we've played all year," said Northwest Missouri State head women's basketball coach Mark Kellogg. "That's the most important thing. We're playing with confidence. We've got a huge challenge with Washburn in front of us. With the momentum we have at this point, we want to win a game and re-evaluate from there. We're in survive and advance mode now."
It's been that way to an extent for Northwest over the last four games, and the Bearcats have thrived under those conditions.
After ending the regular season with an upset of Truman State at home, Northwest secured its spot in Kansas City with a 77-72 road win over No. 8 seed Missouri Southern Tuesday night.
A year removed from finishing 6-22 and last in the MIAA, Northwest is making its first appearance on the tournament's main stage since the 2010-2011 season when they won the regular season/tournament titles and went to the Final Four.
A lot has changed since then.
The Bearcats have a new coach, an entirely new starting five, a new offensive system and a new defense.
The only three hold-overs from the 2010-2011 team are reserves Meridee Scott, Alexis Boeh and Ashley Thayer.
Northwest was the top-seeded team in the field that year, but this time, will operate as an underdog especially in its first game with MIAA regular season champion Washburn (22-4). The No. 9 Lady Blues are ranked first in the Central Region and likely need to win at least a game in the tournament to ensure they get to host a regional.
The Washburn/Northwest winner faces either No. 4 seed Emporia State or No. 5 Truman State in the semifinals Saturday at 6 p.m.
Northwest lost both regular season meetings to Washburn within a week span, but only by a combined 18 points.
The scores were 64-53 in Topeka, Kan. Feb. 9 and 61-54 in Maryville a week later—the most recent of which remains Northwest's last loss.
Northwest never faced more than a 10-point deficit in the second meeting, as Washburn had trouble distancing itself in the second half. The Bearcats actually out-shot Washburn from the field in both games and out-boarded the Lady Blues in the second game. However, a combined 50 turnovers gave the Lady Blues tons of extra possessions that negated Northwest's superior shooting.
Page 2 of 3 - Going into this matchup, Northwest's goal is to cut the turnovers in half and limit run-outs as much as possible.
"Anything in the low teens would be great," said Kellogg. "In the post-season, every possession gets magnified. Especially with a team of Washburn's caliber, you can't give them extra possessions. We need to keep the possessions even and see if we can take advantage of them more than they do."
An even-possession game favors Northwest which is a better offensive team than the defensive-oriented Lady Blues.
The Bearcats are tops in the MIAA in shooting percentage (.450), while Washburn is fifth and 11th in scoring.
Northwest has been at its most efficient offensively over the course of its win streak, averaging 72.3 points on 50-plus percent shooting with at least four double-figure scorers in each game.
Sophomore Ashleigh Nelson led Northwest with 21 points against Southern and was joined in double figures by sophomore Annie Mathews (14 points), Boeh (12 points) and freshman Tember Schechinger (10 points).
It was Schechinger's third straight double-figure game and Boeh's second.
"I think it's just confidence," said Kellogg."We're all shooting it well. Confidence goes a long way in this sport."
Northwest's most effective offensive player against Washburn has been sophomore center Maggie Marnin who scored 19 in the first meeting and 10 in the second. Mathews had 12 points in both games.
Northwest averaged 53.5 points and shot better than 42 percent both times, surpassing what the Lady Blues give up in those areas on the season.
Washburn leads the MIAA in scoring defense (51.2 ppg) and field goal percentage defense (.331).
The Lady Blues have yet to allow more than 68 points to a conference opponent, enabling them to still win almost every game while averaging just over 63 points.
Washburn's most dangerous scoring threat is senior guard Laura Kinderknecht, the co-player of the year in the MIAA.
She averages 14.3 points and shoots 38.8 percent from three. Kinderknecht made nine three's in the two games against Northwest in the regular season.
Post player Tiara George is second on the team in scoring with 9.6 points per game. Swing forward LaVonda McCall, a third-team All-MIAA selection, averages 8.5 points per game and 5.5 rebounds.
She led Washburn in scoring against Northwest the second time with 16 points.
Senior guard Stormye Everett is an all-defensive team selection and senior forward Dana Elliott earned honorable mention.
"We lost Kinderknecht a few times in our games," said Kellogg. "She got some uncontested looks at three's and she's going to make those about every time. George is phenomenal down there in the paint. McCall is scoring it more late in the year and provides all sorts of issues on the defensive end. Stormye Everett is as good of a defensive player as there is in the league. They're a balanced group."
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