Women’s basketball looks to break even

Jacob VanZuiden, Courier Staff

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While many of their fellow students traveled home for the holidays, the Leatherneck women’s basketball team stayed busy.

Coming into winter break, the Purple and Gold managed a respectable 5-6 record, looking to climb the Summit League Standings and put themselves over the .500 mark for the first time since early November.

On Dec. 7, the ladies traveled to Carbondale to compete in the Inaugural Compass Challenge hosted by Southern Illinois. Western was outlasted by Eastern Illinois in their first contest, losing by two points. The game was knotted-up at 60-all with just 36 seconds remaining before the Panthers’ clutch free-throw shooting secured a 64-62 win over the Leathernecks.

The team then struggled to get anything going in their next appearance as Northern Illinois University knocked them out of the tournament with ease, beating them 86-61. Junior guard Olivia Kaufmann did her best to help keep the Purple and Gold afloat, leading the team with 18 points and six rebounds. Freshman guard

Elizabeth Lutz also chipped in with 11 points. While their efforts came up short, head coach JD Gravina saw plenty of positives from his young squad.

“It may be hard to see in the stat line, but I think we took a small step forward today,” said Gravina. “We played harder, rebounded a little harder, and honestly, offensively, we got a ton of good shots, especially early.”

As Christmas inched closer, the ladies found themselves in the heart of Nevada, competing in the Las Vegas Holiday Hoops Classic on Dec. 21. Their first action against UTEP proved to be a memorable game for senior guard Taylor Higginbotham, who moved to third on the Western Illinois women’s basketball all-time scoring list after a 24-point effort. The Leathernecks came up short again as their late rally wasn’t enough, losing the battle 72-84.

The team’s fortunes began to change in the following game, however, as they managed to top Furman University 85-78.

Higginbotham once again saw herself move up on the school’s all-time scoring list, passing Zane Teilane for second place. Higginbotham’s strong impact has paced this inexperienced squad all season long, but it was junior guard Avery Hamm who turned out to be the X-factor in this one. Her three-point prowess proved to be the difference in this one, as her 18 points (all three-pointers) off the bench provided a much-needed spark. Kaufmann also had a career night of her own, finishing with 26 points, eight rebounds, four assists and five steals.

Coming off an impressive victory, the Purple and Gold aimed to take their momentum into their Summit League opener on Dec. 28, against a tough opponent in South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits came into action as the reigning Summit League champions, proving that Western would need to bring forth their best effort yet. Although South Dakota’s offensive firepower gave them the upper hand in a hard-fought 93-84 victo- ry, Western’s Elizabeth Lutz did all that she could to keep things close, pouring in a career-high 28 points. Junior guard Kyra Washington placed second on the Leathernecks with 14 points of her own.

The final result against South Dakota State may not have been ideal but should’ve been seen as a moral victory that would allow the team to hold their heads high going into their contest against Denver. They were able to do just that, riding an offensive hot streak into their second consecutive matchup at Western Hall, defeating their opposition 87-78. It was none other than Higginbotham who led the charge for the Leathernecks, posting 23 points to pair with a career high 17 rebounds. It was a well-rounded win that included contributions from several key players. Sophomore guard Grace Gilmore (14), along with junior guards Annabel Graettinger (17) and Kaufmann (13), finished the game with double figure scoring totals.

The Purple and Gold ended the 2018 calendar year on the right foot but would need to quickly turn their attention to Oral Roberts University, where they would play their first road game of the new year on Jan. 5. Oral Roberts was able to narrowly edge the Leathernecks in a 68-64 nail-biter, where Western was forced into comeback mode in the waning moments of the contest. In another close loss, ORU out-boarded the Necks 45-37. Their defeat moved them to 1-2 in Summit League play.

Things didn’t get any easier for Western in their last contest before the beginning of the spring semester, when they traveled to North Dakota State last Friday. After a strong first half by the Leathernecks, they managed to come up with just 25 points in the second half, allowing the Bison to walk away with a 68-60 victory. Finishing the evening with her third straight double-double, Higginbotham did all that she could to keep things close. Gravina acknowledged that the root of the team’s faults may have come from their inability to get to the free throw line.

“We just weren’t doing a great job of going to finish. We didn’t get to the free throw line as much as we normally do, which says something about our aggressiveness, but really it’s mostly about our spacing,” said Gravina. “That’s a huge thing for our motion offense, and when you don’t have it, it’s tough.”

On the heels of another uninspiring team performance, the Coach Gravina seemed to have a ignited a flame amongst his inexperienced roster. In their final matchup before the 2019 Spring Semester last Sunday, the Leathernecks secured a 12-point win against the University of North Dakota in their first-ever matchup in Grand Forks, defeating them 92-80. For Higginbotham, it was just another day in the office, continuing to make her mark on the school’s record books. This time out, she found herself as the lone-standing all-time leader in 3-pointers made at Western Illinois. However, her ongoing dominance wasn’t enough to overshadow contributions from the rest of the team. Kaufmann dropped a career-high 28 points in the win, with both Graettinger (11) and redshirt freshman guard Danni Nichols (17) finishing with double-figures in the scoring column. Nevertheless, this game was a bright spot for the team to build off.

As classes on campus resume this week, the Purple and Gold will look to work on the holes of their game that have led to an up-and-down season thus far. Currently sitting at 6-12 with a 2-3 record in Summit League play, this team will continue to search for their identity outside of the standout Higginbotham, the lone senior on this year’s squad.

Better days should be in store for the Leathernecks, but they’ll have to figure things out quickly with their next contests right around the corner. The team will have the benefit of a home-court environment in their upcoming matchups with the University of Omaha at 7 p.m. on Wednesday and Purdue University of Fort Wayne at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday.

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