By Austin Cannon
The Bulldogs finished their short exhibition season the way every team wants to: a pair of easy victories without any injuries. Now Drake has a week to prepare for its opener against Iowa State.
The Bulldogs won their second and final exhibition game Sunday at the Knapp Center, drubbing Simpson, 94-61. Drake also beat Grand View on Tuesday, cruising past the Vikings, 96-46.
“We’re feeling good,” forward Lizzy Wendell said. “We’re glad we got two wins out of this.”
Like the contest before it, Sunday’s game against Simpson was hardly in doubt. The Storm’s final lead of the game was 9-8 in the first quarter. A Nicole Miller transition layup gave Drake the 10-9 lead with 6:42 left in the first and Drake took off from there.
Wendell, last season’s Missouri Valley Conference scoring champion, led all scorers with 33 points. Freshman forward Sara Rhine came off the bench and led Drake’s second unit with 24 points on 9 of 12 shooting.
Simpson plays the same style Drake does: high-pressure defense that operates baseline-to-baseline and a fast-paced offense that puts up a high volume of shots. The two teams unsurprisingly combined for 138 shots on the afternoon.
Drake took a 47-36 lead into halftime. The Bulldogs returned to the floor and went on a 13-0 run, working the ball down low.
“When we have an advantage like we did, we needed to be able to score in the paint a little more in the second half,” head coach Jennie Baranczyk said. “I think we did that.”
The Bulldogs did indeed, scoring 22 points in the paint in the third quarter. Rhine added 10 more points to her tally by shooing 80 percent from the floor. The freshman from Eldon, Missouri, was the primary scoring threat when Wendell was out of the game. With center Becca Jonas out for the year, the 6-foot-1 Rhine will be called upon early and often to provide an inside presence.
“She’s going to be one of those players that grows a lot this season,” Baranczyk said.
Since it was the exhibition season, Baranczyk was able to experiment with whom she put on the floor. At times in the second, third and fourth quarters, she would take out starters Wendell, Caitlin Ingle, Maddy Dean and Emma Donahue and replace them with her team’s younger players.
Each of Drake’s 10 players scored and all of them played at least 13 minutes in the exhibition finale.
“It’s really fun to be able to go out and sit on the bench and then watch out second group keep the intensity, keep the pressure and then keep the lead,” Wendell said.
Baranczyk said she has an idea of what her typical player rotation will be, but she will still need her team to be able to play together no matter who’s on the floor at any given moment.
“We mix up groups and just mix up different sets so that everyone gets a feel with everyone and can see all the different options,” Rhine said.
Drake was also able keep Simpson contained; the Storm could never take control of the game and turned the ball over 22 times. Fifteen of those turnovers were Drake steals.
“I think we’ve gotten better defensively,” Baranczyk said. “We’ve gotten better, partially, because we understand our system more.”
The Bulldogs depended heavily on Wendell. She led the team in points (33), shots (17), rebounds (eight), blocks (two), steals (five) and minutes (27). The junior scoring machine had to carry the offense with limited production from the other four starters, who managed only 20 points combined.
Baranczyk won’t complain about a huge game from her star, but she wouldn’t mind if someone — like Rhine — occasionally eases the pressure off Wendell.
“She is going to have to lead us to a certain extent,” Baranczyk said. “We just hope its not (that) she has to score 30 points every night for us to win a game.”
The Bulldogs have a week to prepare for the Cyclones, who enter the season just outside the AP top 25, receiving four votes. The practice games are over; the real season starts Sunday at 2 p.m.
“I think the biggest thing we’re going to take out is we’ve got to stay focused and locked in,” Baranczyk said, “yet, we’ve got to continue to get better.”