By John Bohnenkamp
Getting a lead on South Dakota hasn’t been a problem for Western Illinois’ women’s basketball team this season.
Finishing the game has been.
And it’s a problem the Leathernecks have to solve before playing Saturday’s Summit League tournament quarterfinal.
Western Illinois (14-14 overall, 5-12 Summit League), the No. 7 seed in the tournament, has led at halftime against the No. 2 seed Coyotes (21-8, 17-1) in both matchups this season.
The Leathernecks had a 30-29 lead in the January 20 game at South Dakota, then the Coyotes outscored them 23-7 in the third quarter on the way to a 70-53 win.
Then, in Monday’s regular season finale in Macomb, Western Illinois led 31-30 at halftime, then was outscored 25-9 in the third quarter in the 75-48 loss.
“The fact that we played two good halves against South Dakota is some encouragement,” Western Illinois coach JD Gravina said. “That’s part of what they do — they wear you down. They’re so physical. They use their height.
“The first goal is to continue to play with fire, hang around in the game. Then you have the second part — if you can do that, how do you change things up and make a run in the second half?”
It’s been a difficult season for the Leathernecks, who lost their last four games of the season. They have dealt with COVID-19 pauses and injuries and are just now getting back into a rhythm.
“The external things that have happened to us, it’s really been a disaster,” Gravina said. “The crazy thing is, internally, our kids have been so phenomenal. I think what we’ve been through can ruin a lot of teams, ruin the experience the players have. It’s still been a really enjoyable year, and I give the players a lot of credit for that.”
Western Illinois has nine players available, so it’s important, Gravina said, to get through the game is just finding a way to get some rest for key players like Danni Nichols (15.7 ppg), Elizabeth Lutz (11.9 ppg), and Evan Zars (10.8 ppg, 9 rpg), who have averaged more than 30 minutes per game, and Jada Thorpe (11.4 ppg), who has averaged 29.5 minutes.
“They have to play so hard, they get worn out,” Gravina said. “So, how do we use timeouts creatively? We’ve even talked about changing some things up defensively to give them a little break.”
South Dakota’s Chloe Lamb (15.7 ppg) was named the conference’s player of the year on Thursday. Teammate Hannah Sjerven was the conference’s defensive player of the year, and Grace Larkins was the conference’s sixth player of the year.
Having seen the Coyotes just a few days ago, Gravina knows what to expect.
“We lost our wind in the second half, and South Dakota picked up their physicality a notch,” Gravina said. “I still feel like we made a step in the right direction, getting back to playing the way we like to play.
“I think a lot of people expect us to go up there and get beat pretty handily. But our team expects more out of ourselves. It still takes a lot of the pressure off, knowing you’re going up there with nothing to lose.”
Photo: Western Illinois guard Elizabeth Lutz was one of three Leathernecks who averaged more than 30 minutes per game this season. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)