Life is different in conference play when you’re the champion, and a favorite to do it all again.
Teams come at you ready to knock you off. Conference play is its own beast, when tendencies are dissected a little more.
Western Illinois University won the Summit League women’s regular-season and tournament titles last season, and the Leathernecks are 2-1 to start the conference schedule this season.
But it hasn’t been easy. A weekend split of games against South Dakota and Oral Roberts at Western Hall was typical of what the Leathernecks are going to see this season.
Western Illinois lost, 82-58, to South Dakota on Thursday night, then followed that with a 56-49 win over Oral Roberts on Saturday.
The Leathernecks are 12-5 overall, with road wins over a ranked Stanford team, Wichita State and Illinois on their resumé.
That doesn’t matter now. It’s seven home games and seven road games in the conference, and it’s not going to be easy.
That’s what made Saturday’s win so crucial. Not only did it allow Western Illinois to avoid getting swept at home, it also proved to the Leathernecks that they can scrap if they need to get a win that way.
“I thought that being able to win a grind-it-out game like this is important for us,” coach JD Gravina said. “In the past there were times where, if we weren’t getting up and down and scoring 78 points, we had no chance. I feel like now, if we don’t have a chance to win a game that way, we can win a game this way.”
“Gravina always emphasizes that — if our shots aren’t falling, you can stay in the game with defense,” said forward Olivia Braun, who had 16 points and eight rebounds. “Eventually a shot is going to fall. As long as the defense is there, we’re going to stay in the game.”
The Leathernecks are experienced, with a rotation that has been through the crucible of conference play before. The longest losing streak Western Illinois has experienced this season is two games.
That’s a credit to the coaching staff and to the players.
“Coach doesn’t really harp on us too much after a loss,” guard Taylor Higginbotham said. “We talk about it a little bit the day after, but it’s more looking at it from the positive side, looking at we need to fix. It’s important to have that short-term memory to focus on the next game.”
“I think our kids are really mature,” Gravina said. “They’ve been there before. I think they’re really good at listening to the coaching staff.”
Gravina and his staff needed some extra time to prepare after Thursday’s loss, so Friday’s practice was pushed back.
If anything, the Leathernecks needed a change in their mentality.
“Our problem wasn’t that we thought we were going to walk through South Dakota — our kids are way smarter than that,” Gravina said after Saturday’s win. “Our problem was we had a little bit of a fear of failure, fear of losing. And I think that’s what got us in the South Dakota game. That’s what we tried to address going into this game.”
“I would say it was extremely important, just to get back on the winning track,” said Higginbotham, who led the Leathernecks with 19 points and 14 rebounds in Saturday’s game. “I think we lost track of ourselves at a time there, and we talked about it a little bit yesterday, just how we wanted to get back to playing our way, getting back to our principles. I think we did a good job of taking what Coach told us, and executing tonight. Which was huge.”
The Leathernecks won last season’s conference title with a late run, winning the final eight games.
They may not have had the conference’s attention last season until it was too late, but they do this time around.
“I think it’s a chance to knock off the champs,” Gravina said. “I think, honestly, we made that run (last year) so late. As we made that run, I don’t think people realized quickly enough that we were as good as we were. I don’t think they game-planned as much. Now I think teams are really game-planning against us, offensively and defensively. I think they’re really putting in some time — we’re kind of the focus of their scouting efforts, and they’re making adjustments. It’s kind of a fun chess match as a coach.”
Higginbotham has become the Leathernecks’ leading scorer, averaging 17 points per game. She has scored in double figures in every game this season, and had six double-doubles. Higginbotham averaged 14.3 points per game.
“Taylor Higginbotham is having a tremendous junior year after what I think she would probably call a sophomore slump, even though she really fought through and had a good sophomore year,” Gravina said.
Emily Clemens is still among the national leaders in assists and assists per game, but she’s been drawing more attention from defenses. That will open up more of the floor for Higginbotham and Braun, who can score inside and outside.
The Leathernecks are on the road for two of their next three games. They know what they’ve seen is also what’s ahead.
“At 2-1 with these two teams under our belt, we always want to be better,” Gravina said. “We’ve got such a tough (schedule) — the whole league is tough. I told our kids, what we need to do is play good basketball games. If we’re close, if we’re in it, I like our chances of winning. Last year, we were 10-2 in what I would like to call ‘50-50 games.’ So, our goal is to get into a ‘50-50 game.’”
They’ll be seeing a lot of those this season.
TAKEAWAYS FROM THE WEEK
• Let’s just give Megan Gustafson the Big Ten player of the year award now.
Gustafson had 34 points and 12 rebounds in Sunday’s 84-71 win at Illinois.
Gustafson is averaging 22.7 points and 12.6 rebounds for the Hawkeyes, who are 15-2 overall, 3-1 in the Big Ten.
• The proof that you can never understand college basketball is in the conference records of Iowa, Iowa State and UNI.
The Hawkeyes are 0-5 in the Big Ten, UNI is 0-4 in the Missouri Valley Conference, and the Cyclones are 0-3 in the Big 12.
Oh, and Drake is 4-0 in the Valley.
• Speaking of the Bulldogs, yeah, there’s a long way to go in the conference race.
But they’ve won two road games so far, and their next three games are at Valparaiso (10-7 overall, 1-3 Valley), at home vs. Evansville (11-6, 1-3), and at UNI (8-8, 0-4) before playing host to conference favorite Missouri State.
• Getting back to UNI, I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who didn’t see this coming.
It’s not like the Panthers have been getting blown out in league play — three of their four losses have been by seven points or less.
Still, this team has lost its identity since mid-December, when this current six-game losing streak began.
A team that looked like it had built a decent NCAA tournament resumé now has to be concerned with staying out of the opening night of the Valley tournament in St. Louis.
• Brandon Gilbeck will own the Western Illinois blocks record by the end of his career.
Gilbeck, a junior, got his 150th block in Saturday’s loss at Oral Roberts, which set the new school mark. And with the rest of this season and a full senior season ahead, that number will grow significantly.
THE WISE AP BALLOT
More Top 25 carnage this week.
• Who’s No. 1? That would be Villanova, with Duke and Michigan State losing. And you could make a case for either West Virginia (No. 2) or Virginia (No. 3) at that spot.
• Stock rising: Texas Tech went from 18th on last week’s ballot to seventh. Purdue went from 16th to ninth. Clemson went from unranked to 16th. Cincinnati jumped from 23rd to 14th.
• Stock falling: Texas A&M went from 11th on my ballot to out after losses to Florida and LSU. The Aggies might have been able to stay in, but there are a lot of teams (Clemson and Auburn are new this week) who deserve to be on my ballot.
Also, Kentucky went from 12th to 21st.
Here's the ballot.
2. West Virginia
5. Michigan State
6. Wichita State
7. Texas Tech
8. Arizona State
17. Seton Hall
18. Miami (Fla.)
19. North Carolina
24. Florida State