ARTICLE BY AUSTIN CANNON
The Drake women’s basketball team finds itself in prime position at the midway point of the Missouri Valley Conference season.
With nine conference games played and nine to go, the Bulldogs are tied for first in the MVC standings with Northern Iowa and Missouri State. Each team has a 7-2 conference record with Drake boasting the best overall mark at 14-6.
“Would I have liked to maybe not have lost those two games that we did? Absolutely, but I think we probably stole a couple on the road, too,” Drake head coach Jennie Baranczyk said. “… I really think that we’re learning, though, and that’s a credit to the women that we have on our team.”
Drake so far has seen better results on the road (4-0) than at home (3-2) during MVC play, including its two latest victories, a pair of wins over Bradley and Loyola this weekend.
The Bulldogs overcame slow starts in both contests. They fell behind the Braves by 11 in the first quarter on Friday before taking an eight-point halftime lead and winning, 76-64.
Drake started even slower Sunday against Loyola, who came into Sunday tied for first in the MVC. The Ramblers took a 21-8 lead after a first quarter rife with Drake turnovers (five) and poor shooting (3 of 12 from the floor). But the Bulldogs again recovered, outscoring Loyola 15-2 to end the second quarter and take a 29-27 lead at the half via Lizzy Wendell’s layup in the final seconds. Loyola scored only six points in the quarter.
Drake was able to maintain a slim lead over Loyola early the third quarter, but a 3-pointer from Wendell gave Drake a 37-32 advantage with 7:28 remaining. Drake kept the Ramblers at bay, ending the quarter up 56-46. It was more of the same in the final period, and the Bulldogs left Chicago with an 81-65 victory.
Falling behind early is never good, but if the deficit occurs early, there’s enough time to come back.
“It’s definitely something we’re probably going to talk about and we should work on and improve upon, but … coming back speaks volumes about our team and that’s definitely an area that we think we have improved on,” said Maddy Dean, who finished Sunday with 13 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
On the brighter side, a more encouraging trend emerged from this weekend: the complete play of Wendell. Over those two games, she scored 50 points, shot 56 percent from the field, grabbed 10 rebounds, made nine assists, nabbed four steals and blocked a shot. Together, it made for two of her best games of the season.
“She is definitely not just a shooter, not just a scorer,” Baranczyk said. “She’s an all-around player.”
Wendell tied the score at 27-27 with a 3-pointer at the 1:30 mark in the second quarter on Sunday. It was her 10th point of the game and moved her into 11th place on Drake’s all-time scoring list. Her 25 points against Loyola gave her 1,621 for her career, 40 points behind the No. 10 spot.
“(I was) just really relying on my teammates and trusting them,” Wendell said. “That’s what we were really focusing on this weekend and sticking with that. I found the open people and they hit their shots and vice-versa.”
Baranczyk has been impressed with her three freshmen — Sara Rhine, Sammie Bachrodt and Nicole Miller — and their energy and production throughout the season, but she said she will still rely on her more experienced players, like Wendell, to lead during the final month.
“I also think she has a bounce in her step right now and people are following her,” Baranczyk said of Wendell, the conference’s leading scorer at 20.5 points per game.
Loyola was the last conference team the Bulldogs had yet to play this season. The second trip through The Valley begins Friday at the Knapp Center when Drake hosts Wichita State. The Bulldogs beat the Shockers 87-56 in Wichita on Jan. 10.
With a 5-15 record, WSU is a far cry from its MVC championship team of a year ago, and this season there’s no shortage of competition to replace the Shockers at the MVC’s top spot: Five teams — half the conference — are within a game of first place.
Drake, for now, is at the top of that logjam, and if the Bulldogs keep playing like they did this weekend, they have a good chance to stay there.
“I like where we’re at, but I really like where we’re going,” Baranczyk said. “We need to be better and we know that, but we did some really good things, I thought, this weekend that will help propel us into February.”