By Austin Cannon
Teams can’t lose at home if they want to compete for a conference championship, so it was imperative that the Bulldogs take care of business at the Knapp Center this weekend against a pair of teams with losing records.
With a big second half, Drake bested Indiana State on Friday, 80-55. Sunday night the Bulldogs hosted Illinois State and outclassed the 3-13 Redbirds, 76-41. It was how a contender is supposed to play, never letting the Redbirds get close after the opening quarter.
It was Drake’s fifth consecutive victory, and the Bulldogs are now tied with Northern Iowa atop the Missouri Valley Conference standings, setting up a can’t-miss matchup with the Panthers next Sunday at the Knapp Center.
On this Sunday, Drake’s victory came via 25 assists on 32 baskets. Caitlin Ingle led with eight assists and Maddy Dean followed closely with a career-high seven. Five other players also recorded at least one assist. All nine Bulldogs scored.
Head coach Jennie Baranczyk was most impressed with who supplied the assists. Ingle leads the team in dimes, but Drake’s two top scorers, Dean and Lizzy Wendell, combined for 10 assists.
“When you look at a lot of our assists, they’re coming from the people who are quote-on-quote ‘supposed to score points,’” she said. “That’s one of my favorite things about this team.”
“It’s just really fun basketball to be a part of right now,” Dean said.
Sara Rhine was the primary benefactor of all the sharing, assisted on five of her seven made field goals. Three of those were from Dean, who found the 6-foot-1 freshman on cuts to the basket twice and once more when a ISU defensive breakdown left Rhine all alone under the basket. The resulting layup forced a Redbird timeout and gave the Bulldogs a 47-29 lead with 5:30 left in the third quarter.
The timeout was hardly enough to halt the Bulldogs’ advance. After four turnovers early in the quarter, the Bulldogs settled in and outscored the Redbirds 22-10 in the third quarter for a 26-point lead. Just like on Friday, Drake had effectively won the game after 30 minutes of play.
For Rhine, it was a continuation of what has been an impressive first season. She came in averaging nearly 12 points per game and now feels even more up to the task of MVC basketball.
“(I) definitely feel a lot more confident than I did even starting the season,” she said. “Just seeing how much time together we’ve had and just how comfortable I am with my teammates and up and down the floor just feels so comfortable, feels so good.”
The Drake lead was on an upward trajectory all night. A five-point lead after the first quarter grew to 14 points at halftime. The Bulldogs never trailed, and the game was only tied once: 2-2 after the teams traded opening baskets. Rhine led all scorers with 17 points, and Wendell scored 12, marking the 62nd consecutive game she’s scored 10 or more. The streak dates back to her freshman season in 2014.
The Redbirds weren’t doing much to help their cause. Their 10 of 26 shooting kept them within striking distance in the first half, but they only converted five shots from the field in the second half (16.7 percent). ISU’s 22 turnovers — 13 of which came on Drake steals — only made things worse. It was the lowest scoring output of a Drake opponent this season.
For most of the afternoon, an ISU player would receive the ball and immediately find herself toe-to-toe with a Drake defender.
“Communication is our number one thing that we always are talking about,” Rhine said. “Even if we don’t have the right rotation or not in the right spot, (we) at least talk through it; then we’re fine because we’re able to cover for one another.”
The Bulldogs were far from error-free themselves, committing 24 turnovers. Ill-advised passes that fell into Redbird hands were the main culprit, proof that even with a five-game winning streak and a spot atop the MVC standings there’s still work to be done.
“We probably could go through a lot of our turnovers where I’d have liked for us to make better reads,” Baranczyk said.
To compensate for the poor ball security, the Bulldogs shot over 58 percent. Why so well? High-percentage shots. Drake scored 50 points in the paint and shot 70 percent inside the three-point arc.
“We’re really taking what people are giving us, so when people really try to take away the three-point line, that’s when we’re having some advantages in the paint,” Baranczyk said.
The Bulldogs have a week before UNI, a game that right now has big implications on who might win the conference. At this point, though, Baranczyk likes where her team is. After losing 5 of 6 around the holidays, the Bulldogs have climbed out of the hole.
“I really, really like the fact that we know we have to have the chemistry and we know what it feels like to really not just survive but to be able to excel,” Baranczyk said. “That’s the piece that I really like — that you always want but teams don’t always have. This team has that.”