By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
MACOMB, Ill. — It’s been a search for an identity all season.
And there aren’t that many games left for Western Illinois’ women’s basketball team.
The Leathernecks fell to North Dakota, 86-70, in the penultimate home game of the regular season on Thursday night, and the difference in experience between the two teams showed.
The Fighting Hawks (18-9 overall, 11-6 Summit League) start three graduate students and one senior, and that, Western Illinois coach JD Gravina said, makes a big difference.
“They’re a good team,” he said. “Six of their top seven are seniors. … There’s a reason they’re tied for second place.
“One thing that we’re struggling with is, you know who their best players are. Our team, I like that we have a ton of players that are good basketball players, but I don’t know who our best players are. And I think that makes it hard at the Division I level and, we’re kind of still trying to find ourselves a little bit.”
Western Illinois (10-18, 5-12) struggled to make shots despite having plenty of good looks. The Leathernecks shot 33.8 percent from the field, 26.7 percent in 3-pointers, and that, combined with 18 turnovers, made it a difficult night.
“It just feels like we can’t catch a break,” Gravina said. “We get a good shot, we don’t knock it down. We think we get a steal, we actually kick it out of bounds. We don’t get a call. I mean, we just don’t have any room for error.”
“I thought we started off a little cold,” said guard Jada Thorpe, who led the Leathernecks with 16 points. “We’ve got some good shooters on this team.”
The Leathernecks were only down 43-32 at halftime after a late run, a score Gravina thought was manageable. But the Fighting Hawks pushed the lead to 20 on two occasions midway through the third quarter, leaving Western Illinois scrambling. Ten Leathernecks played double-digit minutes as Gravina kept searching for the right combinations.
Kacie Borowicz led North Dakota with 31 points, while Claire Orth added 15.
“Those kids are just too veteran,” Gravina said. “They get easy baskets, second-chance points, they get to the free-throw line.”
“I do feel like we stuck around. It was always in that 15, 13-point range forever, even though we were playing a lot of kids.”
Thorpe was the Leathernecks’ best offensive option, hitting 5-of-10 shots, including 4-of-6 3-pointers.
“It sucks that I didn’t get hot until late,” she said. “I just wanted to be more aggressive at the end, because we didn’t have anything to lose. Everybody was moving and it kind of opened up things for me.”
Western Illinois closes the regular season at home Saturday against North Dakota State.
“I want to put up a good fight,” Gravina said. “We’re playing for more than just our record or our position in the conference. You know, it’s our last home game. We’re playing for some pride. We’re playing for the future of our program. We’re playing for some confidence going into the conference tournament. So there’s still a lot to play for.”
Photo: Western Illinois’ Anna Deets looks for an opening in North Dakota’s defense in Thursday’s game. (Photo courtesy of WIU Athletic Communications)