BY JOE MILLER PHOTO BY ADAM ROGAN
“It’ll be real when it becomes real,” Drake Women’s Basketball head coach Jennie Baranczyk said after her team won its first outright regular season Missouri Valley Conference championship since 2000.
After a close first half, the Bulldogs (23-4 16-0 MVC) pulled away from the University of Northern Iowa (20-7, 13-3 MVC) in the second to take a convincing 70-57 win on Friday night. There’s still two games left in the regular season, but the conference title is already secure.
The win — the team’s 17th straight, a new program record — also came in front of the biggest Knapp Center crowd since 2001, 6,456 fans – a Drake Women’s Basketball record.
“It honestly brings tears to my eyes just to think about how important this game was in terms of our fans,” Barancyzk said in the postgame press conference.
The Northern Iowa Panthers, number two in the MVC, made it clear from the tip they were determined to hand Drake its first conference loss.
Scoring stayed low in the first quarter, as stubborn defense from both sides prevented either offense from getting into a rhythm. After the first frame, neither team had cracked double digits with the score knotted up at 8-8.
The second quarter upped the scoring, but remained close. Drake pulled ahead towards the end of the quarter thanks to eight straight points from freshman Becca Hittner, heading into the locker room up 26-22.
The Bulldogs’ depth gave them a substantial advantage in the second half, and their intensity picked up as the game went on. They out the third quarter on a 13-2 run and took a comfortable 13 lead into the fourth quarter.
Drake kept a double-digit lead throughout the final frame, and took the game 70-57.
Senior Lizzy Wendell led the Drake attack with 21 points, four rebounds and a pair of assists. She’s all but locked down the MVC scoring title for the third straight year, averaging 20.9 points per game, 4.6 PPG ahead of second place.
Wendell was also named as one of 20 Senior CLASS Award finalists earlier this month. The honor is given to an NCAA basketball student-athlete who epitomizes performance on-the-court and class off-the-court.
Senior point guard Caitlin Ingle continued to be a workhouse for the Drake squad on Friday, totaling nine points, eight assists, six rebounds and a steal.
Ingle will assuredly lead the MVC in assists for the second season in a row. She’s averaging 7.6 assists per game, nearly three more per game than second place.
“For (Ingle and Wendell), it was perfect for them just to shine,” Baranczyk said.
Three other Bulldogs finished the game in double-digits, Hittner (12), sophomore Sammie Bachrodt (10) and sophomore Becca Jonas (10).
Bachrodt and Hittner cleaned up the boards as well, pulling down six and five respectively.
Although they only won the game by 13 points, the stat sheet makes Drake’s performance look dominant. The Bulldogs shot an impressive 52 percent from the field (29-56) while holding the Panthers to a poor 29 percent (18-64). Drake’s offensive presence down low was unmatched once again. The Bulldogs outscored the Panthers 42-14 in the paint.
“I’m really proud of how far we’ve come,” Baranczyk. “But we’re not done yet.”
“The best is yet to come,” Ingle added.”
Drake will begin the conference tournament March 10 in Moline, Illinois, as the top seed with a first-round bye.
Winning the conference tournament would guarantee a seed in the NCAA Tournament. It would be Drake Women’s Basketball’s first conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 2007.
Even if the Bulldogs are upset in the conference tourney, they will still probably make it to the NCAA Tournament. They’ve been ranked in the nation’s top-25 since Feb. 13; 64 teams are seeded in the tournament.
Before that, however, the Bulldogs have to finish out the regular season at home. They will face off against reigning MVC-champ Missouri State on Thursday, March 2, and Wichita State on Saturday, March 9.
Managing Editor Adam Rogan contributed to this story.