First-year coach Kari Kerkhoff vowed almost one year ago that her McKendree University women’s basketball team would play hard.
The Bearcats have upheld Kerkhoff’s promise and went one step further with a first-ever trip to the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament.
Eighth-seeded McKendree (12-16, 7-11) will play host to the ninth-seeded Indianapolis Greyhounds (9-19, 7-11) at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Harry M. Statham Sports Center.
If McKendree defeats Indianapolis, it will play in the tourney quarterfinals Friday at Family Arena in St. Charles, Mo. Game time and opponent will be determined Sunday after first-round games are played.
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“It’s an exciting time,” said Kerkhoff, the former assistant coach at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “I’m excited for the players because they have worked so hard and bought into our system. They deserve it. This is one of those things that’s going to become an expectation for our program. We’re going to compete to hopefully be in that top half of the conference every year.”
McKendree, which won just two games last season, collected its 12th victory of the year Thursday and none were more important.
In a must-win situation against visiting Illinois-Springfield, the Bearcats (12-16, 7-11) led from start to finish in a 71-54 victory that qualified them for the tournament.
I’m excited for the players because they have worked so hard and bought into our system. They deserve it. This is one of those things that’s going to become an expectation for our program. We’re going to compete to hopefully be in that top half of the conference every year.
McKendree women’s basketball coach Kari Kerkhoff on reaching GLVC tourney
Junior Emily Pusheck had 19 points off the bench, junior Amber Alexander had 10 assists, junior Shannon McGinnis had 14 points and senior Ashley Klass had 12 points on four 3-pointers on five attempts.
“We’re very excited,” Emily Pusheck said. “And we’re hosting (a game), which is great, too. We believed we could do this. The coaches believed in us and we believed in ourselves.”
The Bearcats played Indianapolis once in the regular season, winning 54-51 on Jan. 23 in Indianapolis as seniors Kacey Johnson (13 points) and Kelsee Ennis (10) led the attack.
Kerkhoff would take a duplication of that performance, but hopes the rematch won’t be as taxing given that the Bearcats will be on their home floor.
“Indianapolis is very good team,” Kerkhoff said. “I feel like they’re playing better now than when we played them, so it’s always going to be a tough challenge. We didn’t play very well when we were at Indy. I think if we can come out with a little better energy and focus than we did at their place, it’s going to be another game that’s going to be a battle.”
Indianapolis played a zone defense against the Bearcats in January, and most teams have been employing that strategy of late. Kerkhoff said the Bearcats can succeed if they move the ball quicker and find avenues of attack within the zone.
“I feel like the biggest progress we’ve made is on the offensive end,” Kerkhoff said. “We’re continuing to watch film with the ladies and showing them opportunities to get better shots. They’ve taken that in stride here the last two months or so on the motion part.
“Now people are playing us a little bit more in zone and we’ve been focusing on zone offense and showing them opportunities to score and penetrate against the gaps in the zone.”
Scouting the Greyhounds
Indianapolis has won its last two games, against Wisconsin-Parkside and St. Joseph’s. The Greyhounds have one of the top players in the conference in senior guard Princess German, averaging 21.1 points with 65 3-pointers.
Junior forward Nicole Anderson (14.1 points, 7.2 rebounds) and sophomore guard Sarah Costello (10.3 points, 51 3-pointers) also are capable of taking over on the offensive end. Anderson and Costello both have more assists than turnovers.
Beyond German, Anderson and Costello, however, Indianapolis lacks scoring punch, which could play into the Bearcats’ favor on the defensive end.
“They have three players that play 35-plus minutes,” Kerkhoff said, referring to German, Anderson and Costello. “They’re all double-digit scorers. That’s the majority of their offense. We really have to key in on the two guards and their post players.
“Last time, we mixed it up on them. I think that helped us a little bit, but I think the big thing for us is always going to be taking out their top scorer and rebounding the ball.”
Balance with the ball
Offensively, McKendree doesn’t have a player averaging in double figures. The Bearcats instead rely on balance and lots of it.
When people focus in on one person, there’s somebody else that steps up for us. We’re really kind of hard to guard in that sense.
McKendree coach Kari Kerkhoff
“When people focus in on one person, there’s somebody else that steps up for us,” Kerkhoff said. “We’re really kind of hard to guard in that sense. We don’t have any double-digit scorers. Don’t get me wrong; I would love to have one. If they’re going to take away one option, another guard or another post player is going to step in and play.”
Junior Ellie Pusheck (8.2 points), Johnson (8.1), Ennis (7.9), Emily Pusheck (7.8) and freshman Jordan Morton (6.2) all have had their moments. Morton leads the Bearcats rebounding at 5.8 per game. Klass leads McKendree in 3-pointers with 27, while Ennis has 22 3-pointers.
Alexander and McGinnis also have been regular contributors.