Women’s basketball weathers early push by North Dakota

Alex Staab, Courier Staff

MACOMB, Ill. – The North Dakota Fighting Hawks (14-11, 5-7) got off to a hot start against the Western Illinois women’s basketball team (14-12, 8-5) on Saturday, but the Leathernecks reversed course and kept momentum for the most part, en route to a high-scoring 91-74 victory.

The start by the visitors was turned around with a 22-4 Leatherneck run. Already 10 minutes in, it was 26-18, so fans knew it was on pace for a high-scoring battle. You wouldn’t know that from the Leathernecks’ perspective considering they had just made quite a long trip back from the Dakotas, as head coach JD Gravina attests to.

“That’s just brutal travel. They took a private chartered flight in. We’re coming off the eight-hour bus ride. For Olivia Kaufmann to play 40 minutes in that game (at South Dakota) is just really unbelievable.” Gravina said.

Evan Zars feels that although it may not have been the easiest of trips, she credits Gravina for making it as seamless as possible.

“It was definitely rough. Our coach was definitely conscious of that. He gave us enough time to recover and didn’t push us too hard, so that was really helpful, because he knew that this was going to be a big game.” Zars said

Western Illinois kept up the scoring clip, getting the score up to 30-18 on a pair of free throws from Grace Gilmore.

The run continued when Danni Nichols scored a layup to make it 38-18. It took until the 5:06 mark of the second quarter for the visiting Fighting Hawks to get their first points since the break.

North Dakota used that first bucket as much as they could, getting it back down to 15 points with a three from Jaclyn Jarnot, but that was quickly answered on the other end with a three from Elizabeth Lutz.

Both teams battled it out in the third quarter, with the point spread staying around the same spot until all the way down to the three minute mark of the third, when North Dakota worked down to nine with 2:36 to go.

Enter Lilly Keplin. The guard for the Fighting Hawks had an incredible third quarter, scoring consecutive threes, but three in total. A jumper from Keplin as well made it an eight-point game headed to the fourth quarter. Keplin’s efforts is something that Gilmore knew would be a factor coming in.

“We knew she was a shooter coming into the game, I just don’t really think she hit a bunch in a row up until the end, so, when she starting hitting those, we definitely had to start paying more attention to her.” Gilmore said.

A jumper by Kaufmann and a layup by Zars got the lead back up to 13.

North Dakota wasn’t about to go down. A pair of free throws from Julia Fleecs got it back to single digits with just 95 seconds remaining.

The next four Leatherneck points were all on free throws from Nichols to make it a 13-point game. The energy of the crowd was certainly a factor and Gravina believes it wasn’t just today, it’s been longer-term as well.

“We fed off the crowd’s energy, so credit to the crowd. They’ve continuously supported us, and it’s even grown.” Gravina said.

Despite the game looking like the Leathernecks were pulling away, the Fighting Hawks continued to foul and send Western Illinois to the line, a concept that Kaufmann knew was potentially on the horizon. “From the first time we played them, we knew they were a very physical team. I don’t think they could keep us in front, guard us one-on-one, and that’s kind of our game. Getting to the line was definitely to our benefit.”

The free throws came and went, and the third-place Leathernecks came out with a win in a game that saw a combined 165 points between both teams.

Western Illinois only has one women’s basketball home game left. Fans should note, it’s not a doubleheader. It’s a stand-alone Senior Day game against the Omaha Mavericks on Thursday, Feb. 20. Tipoff is slated for 7 p.m., as the program honors Kaufmann, Annabel Graettinger, Avery Hamm and Kyra Washington.