Sioux City or Bust

They were fast, interchangeable, aggressive and historic.

What does the University of Saint Mary women’s basketball team do for an encore in 2017-18?

A year ago, the Spires stood at 5-11 overall and not sure of their place in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) stratosphere.

Then a 13-game winning streak put them at the upper echelon of the KCAC standings. Talk of a potential NAIA Tournament bid began.

An 80-62 KCAC semifinal playoff loss at Tabor saw it all come crashing down as the streak and the NAIA hopes were dashed. The Spires watched other teams with lesser resumes head to Sioux City, Iowa, for the national tournament.

Fast forward to a team full of returning players who played key roles for USM and some incoming depth and talent. Could the sequel end up being better than the original?

Head coach Bruce Erickson will find out soon enough when the Spires host Avila on Halloween at 7 p.m.

“Last year we were ranked 33rd (for a 32-team tournament field) and we didn’t realize that the committee was going to take into account the NCAA DII losses,” Erickson said of last year. “But we still play those people because it gets us ready for the league. We beat both (KCAC) teams that went to the tournament. So it gives us a goal to go after and we will see if we can get things right. We probably let a few games slip away in non-conference that hurt us.

“Every game we will prepare a little bit better and that’s why we started practice a week earlier – to get our new kids acclimated to our system. We want to come out and get a win over Avila and hopefully it will carry over.

“We could have played some of the religious directional schools to get a few more wins, but I won’t do that. We tell the kids when we recruit them that we will play the toughest teams we can play. It doesn’t do any good to beat a team by 30 or 40. Hopefully it prepares us for the league and gets us ready to go.”

The loss to Tabor and the unceremonious end a year ago has burned inside of these USM women.

“It was a good learning lesson on how we can start the season better,” senior guard Ashley Hinkle said. “When we started off it was a mental thing. We were all new to each other and didn’t know how each other played. This year we have better chemistry.

“We have guards and posts now that are interchangeable. We are coming back better than what we had last year. We could have given more at the beginning of the year. Even during the streak, we could have tried different things to help us get there. In the last game at Tabor, we could have pushed harder and maybe done something different.”

This winter the team needs to find a way to replace the Herculean effort of Imani White, who graduated, as she did a little bit of everything while pacing the team as the Spires’ glue player.

“Imani was our best leader and when we needed a basket or anything good to happen, she would step up and take charge,” Erickson said. “Her little sister (Tiani) is here now and she will be a phenomenal player for us.”

“We have a lot of Imanis now which is good,” senior Candy De Los Reyes said.

“This year people know where we want to be because they know how things ended up last year, so we are trying to start the season strong. If we start the season how we ended off, we will be fine.

“Last year was heartbreaking finding out we didn’t make it. We worked so hard, went on that winning streak and gave it all we got. We know we can be better this year.”

Both ladies think the team is faster than it was last year. The team will be more guard-heavy but with plenty of talent to go around.

The team will need to improve its rebounding and post play.

“We are working on our rebounding in practice and we are getting there,” De Los Reyes said. “We have guards who can go outside-in on the drive. (Hinkle) also feels more comfortable throwing it into the post because we really didn’t have that last year.”

“We get Jessica McAdams back after redshirting and she is such a load inside and is doing a good job,” Erickson said. “I see a lot of positives there. We hope to score some points in the post, but that isn’t our main focus. We weren’t as comfortable (last year) going into the half-court set, but we’ve worked on it and we have a little bit better depth this year and got some kids who can score on their own.”

The squad will try to avoid the bugaboo of slow starts that plagued them last year.

“We talked about that and starting games out a little better,” Erickson said. “A lot of that had to do with the defense. We spent a lot of time on that and our defense looks pretty good. We are really buying into the half-court philosophy. We are doing a good job being disruptive.”

Is it tournament or bust for these Spires?

“It’s about the tournament, we got to do it,” Hinkle said. “It would be a heartbreaker (if they don’t make it). But I think we’ll make it.”

“That’s our main goal,” Erickson said. “This is by far the best team we’ve had, depth-wise. We have three teams of five out there and there wasn’t much drop off from the first two and the third group. We have a good group of freshmen and depth.”