ONLINE EXCLUSIVE BY AUSTIN CANNON
Drake head coach Jennie Baranczyk opened her postgame press conference with an unprompted expression of gratitude.
“Second halves,” she said. “Thank goodness for second halves.”
After struggling to get anything going offensively in the first half, the Drake women’s basketball team buried the Indiana State Sycamores in the final two quarters to with its fourth game in a row, 80-55.
The Bulldogs began the third quarter by making their first six shots and scoring 14 unanswered points to take a 43-27 lead. Junior Lizzy Wendell led the onslaught, scoring nine in the first four minutes of the half.
“(We) knew we needed to regroup and come out with a lot of energy, come out and push the tempo and get back to our style of play in the second half,” Wendell said. “I think with that we were getting more shots and hitting our shots because we were in a better flow.”
The Bulldogs made their first six shots. Wendell opened the quarter with a long two-point jumper, then a layup. Then Maddy Dean added a 3-pointer, and Wendell got back into the mix with another layup. Caitlin Ingle followed with a drive and a layup before Wendell added a three to her tally.
The Sycamores didn’t respond until the 6:21 mark when Kelsey Dirks made a pair of free throws to cut the Drake lead to 43-29. It ended the ISU scoring drought, but Drake’s dominance continued. Seven Bulldogs scored in the period. After abysmal first-half shooting, the Bulldogs shot 63 percent in the third quarter and Drake carried a 62-40 lead into the fourth.
The final 10 minutes were merely procedure, as Drake managed to keep ISU at arm’s length. Drake shot nearly 55 percent in the second half while ISU shot a horrible 26 percent. Wendell led all scorers with 20 points, the 40th time in her career she’s done so. She also added 10 rebounds, her fourth-career double-double. Dean added 14 points, and Cortni Rush and Nicole Miller each had 11.
Friday night provided a strength-on-strength matchup. Indiana State brought in the best scoring defense in the MVC, allowing only 59 points per game, while the Bulldogs’ prowess was offense, averaging 80.7 points per game.
In the beginning, the scale seemed to tip in the Sycamores’ favor. After a 3-pointer to start the game from Wendell, the Bulldogs missed their next eight shots from the floor. Indiana State took advantage, making three 3-pointers to take an 11-4 lead.
Rush made a three with 4:16 left in the first quarter to end the Bulldogs’ drought and Emma Donahue followed with a layup to cut the ISU lead to 11-9. The Sycamores only managed a bucket from Cierra Ceazer before the end of the quarter, going the final 3:15 scoreless.
Rush’s shot was the biggest, coming after it seemed like there was an invisible lid on the Drake basket. With every other Bulldog struggling, the junior guard from Mason City, Iowa, kept Drake in the game.
“My teammates stress to me to shoot the open shot, and tonight I came out and didn’t hesitate,” Rush said.
Baranczyk credited both ISU’s defense and Drake’s frantic shooting for the Bulldogs’ shooting woes. She was glad Rush stepped up when the rest of the team wasn’t at its best.
“The way that she’s played the last few games — the shots went down today, but she’s shooting them, she’s looking more, which helps our overall flow of the game,” Baranczyk said.
Drake’s shooting was so bad in the first quarter that it was actually an improvement when the Bulldogs finished the half with a slightly-less-bad field-goal percentage of 34 percent. The Sycamores weren’t much better at 42 percent, especially when you include 11 first-half turnovers and zero free throws. Led by Wendell, who finished the first two quarters with nine points, Drake went into halftime with a 29-27 lead. It wasn’t a good showing against a team with a losing record, but there was no panic in the locker room.
“It was, ‘OK, let’s figure it out. Let’s get back to who we are. Let’s play basketball,'” Baranczyk said. “You know what? The scoreboard always takes care of itself.”
With four straight victories and a date with Illinois State on Sunday, the Bulldogs are squarely in the middle of the conference season, trying to stay near the top of the standings.
“This is a team that knows that they want chemistry,” Baranczyk said. “They know they want to play together; they love playing together.”