In their last six games heading into their matchup with No. 22 Huntington University, the IWU Wildcats have really gelled on both ends of the floor.
Offensively, every player is starting to find their niche and they are growing comfortable in their roles, while defensively, the team has completely bought in.
“We had a shift that we weren’t expecting early on in the season, and we were forced to play new players in new spots, and they were pretty uncomfortable to start the year,” IWU Head Coach Ethan Whaley said. “So it was a slow start, but it just feels like people are settling into their roles and have developed a rhythm. We are clicking right now.”
And on Wednesday, the Wildcats put together one of their best defensive performances of the season, defeating the Foresters by a score of 59-52 at the Luckey Arena.
“It speaks to the intensity and the level of focus that our team came out with. I’m really proud of that,” Whaley said. “Tip your caps to Huntington – they are really, really good. It wasn’t their night in a lot of ways…but nonetheless, we were really tough, and I was proud of our team.”
Huntington, who came into the game averaging 71.9 points per game, was held to their lowest point total of the season as the Wildcats recorded their seventh straight triumph.
“Going into the game, our theme was tough love for the game,” IWU center Anne Secrest said. “That’s basically going out there and playing tough. That’s what we’ve hung our hat on this season. We play tough, and every time we step on the floor, we are playing hard and playing tough for 40 minutes.
“I think we did that tonight. I’m really proud of how we finished the game.”
Along with their 71.9 points, the Foresters came in averaging 46.1 percent shooting from the field and 32.8 percent from beyond the arc. IWU held them to just 33 percent shooting (19-of-57) overall and a woeful three-of-15 (20 percent) from the perimeter.
“We are growing a lot in our defense in the way we are talking and moving,” Secrest said. “I think it’s really starting to click.”
Huntington guard Sarah Fryman came in leading the entire nation in scoring at 23.8 points per game, but a collective defensive effort from Carly Lange, Maddie Davis, and Sarah McLimore kept Fryman well under her average. She scored just 13 points and shot four-of-17 from the floor.
“Carly, Maddie, and Sarah got a piece of her. We threw a lot of bodies at her, and those three, particularly, worked their butts off, but I want to credit the whole team,” Whaley said. “You don’t stop the leading scorer in the country with one player. It was clear that our team was on a mission to make somebody else beat us.
“[I’m] proud of the effort by Maddie and Carly and Sarah, but ultimately, proud of our whole team.”
Over the first 6:44 of the first quarter, the two teams combined for just 13 points, but IWU’s defensive pressure left its mark early. In that same time frame, IWU held Huntington to just two-of-eight shooting from the floor as they built an 8-5 lead.
After a Forester timeout, IWU added eight more points over the final 3:16. Lange scored her first two points on a pair of free throws, Cincinnati Christian transfer Gabby Suarez knocked down a three, and Jene’e Goodwin completed a successful three-point play to give the Wildcats a 16-9 advantage after the first quarter.
IWU continued to clamp down on Huntington in the second quarter, holding the Foresters to just six points.
In the first two stanzas, IWU allowed just five field goals and 15 points, while holding the Foresters scoreless from the perimeter.
“It just attributes to our coaches’ gameplan,” Secrest said. “We worked a lot on how we wanted to guard. They do a lot of ball-screen action, so we worked on how we wanted to guard that. That’s props [to the coaches] for scouting and getting us in the right mindset and knowing what to do to stop them. We just came out and did it well. I’m proud of the effort that we had.”
In the third quarter, IWU built their lead a game-high 17 points with 3:06 to go, but the Foresters finally began to push back, finishing the quarter on a 10-0 run to cut IWU’s advantage to 40-33 heading into the final frame.
A Foresters’ three-pointer made it four-point game early in the stanza, but that would be as close as Huntington would get. IWU answered with a 7-0 run to regain control, making clutch shots and free throws down the stretch to secure the seven-point triumph.
“We talk a lot about poise, and when adversity hits, we want to be ready and waiting for it,” Secrest said. “They went on a 10-0 run, but we came back and we answered. I just thought we did a really great job of being ready.”
Secrest, who missed most of last season with an ACL tear, has looked more and more comfortable out on the floor in recent games. She led the Wildcats with 14 points to go along with five rebounds and three blocks.
“We knew coming into the season that it would be about January before she looked anything close to who she was last year,” Whaley said. “She is starting to hit her stride. She was an anchor for us tonight. Defensively, she played maybe her best game in her career. I’m proud of her. She has overcome a lot. I love that girl, and nobody is happier than I am for Anne Secrest.”
Lange collected 11 points and five rebounds, while Dayton Groninger came away with 10 points and five boards.
As a team, the Wildcats shot 21-of-52 (40.4 percent) from the field, and outrebounded the Foresters by a 40-30 margin.
With a huge game on the horizon, Whaley hopes that the Wildcats’ momentum will carry over into their bout on Saturday afternoon against No. 5 Taylor.
“They’re really good. We just have to compete like we did tonight,” Whaley said. “They are going to make tough shots. That’s what they do. Defensively, they are going to try to keep us out of rhythm, and they are really good at it. You don’t go 18-0 to start the season unless you’re really good at that. Poise is going to be a huge part of it, and then just flat out competing like we did tonight. They are so good. It’s going to be a battle.”