Going on the road twice in three days — and sweeping your conference opponents while holding said opponents to under 35 percent shooting from the field, en route to running the table in your league.
It’s tough to do — but for the No. 1-ranked Shawnee State Bears, that’s a challenge that they welcome.
That fact was proven throughout the latter part of the week as Shawnee State jumped out to a 19-10 first-quarter advantage and, despite a difficult shooting performance, still won by a comfortable margin as the Bears defeated Life (Ga.), 77-62, on Saturday afternoon in the final Mid-South Conference regular season contest for both teams in Marietta, Ga.
For Jeff Nickel, the result of the contest was, as the previous ones have been during their 22-game winning streak and 13-0 MSC tear, a team effort.
“It was a hard fought win,” Nickel said. “We were able to get some stops and get some momentum going. We missed a lot of easy shots that kept us from getting out to a bigger advantage. We had a nine-point lead at the end of the first quarter of play, but we missed a lot of easy shots in that period that could’ve put us up by double-figures. We played a little flat in the second quarter, but we were able to get good production from Leah Wingeier, and Hagen Schaefer came in and gave us some big minutes. I was really pleased with them both. They stepped up and provided big contributions for us.”
In the opening quarter of action, Shawnee State started the contest out hot as the Bears went on a 12-4 first-quarter ending spurt to take the aforementioned 19-10 advantage, with Lovely’s two threes and a trio of buckets from Madison Ridout allowing the pair to combine for six points apiece. Laken Smith’s five early second-quarter points then allowed SSU to take as much as a 24-10 lead behind a 17-4 spurt between the opening pair of quarters. The lid, however, would quickly shut on the basket for Shawnee State as the Bears struggled to score, with Life ultimately going on a 19-9 run to end the opening half of action.
“We weren’t getting good shots, and a lot of that has to do with our ball movement,” Nickel said. “You’ve got to give Life a lot of credit. They did a good job defensively of extending their pressure and taking a few things away from us. It was a very physical, hard-fought win.”
Despite Life’s rally, however, Shawnee State answered back on each occasion with critical baskets — most of which came in the form of Bailey Cummins and Hannah Miller. The pair combined for 10 huge points in the quarter as the Bears, despite the Running Eagles cutting the deficit to two on four separate occasions, answered with huge buckets from the pair on each occasion en route to opening the lead up to a 52-45 count. Cummins was especially impressive en route to a 19-point, six-rebound, three-assist, and one-steal effort on 7-of-12 shooting while playing all but 1:20 of the contest.
“Bailey did a good job,” Nickel said. “She looked like her old self. She got some good shots, was able to hit them, and was able to get to the basket quite a bit. She distributed the basketball really well, too. She just played really solid from an offensive standpoint.”
The final quarter of action, however, was where the Bears really separated themselves from life.
Behind excellent contributions from Leah Wingeier and Hagen Schaefer, Shawnee State was able to open up the gap further as the Bears used the play of the freshmen, who combined with Smith to obtain 12 points, to turn the tide of the affair as Shawnee State took off on a 9-1 push that gave it a comfortable 61-46 lead as the Bears cruised along from that point forward. Wingeier, who had four points and a block on her own, altered “at least five shots” according to the fifth-year head coach.
“Down the stretch of our season, it’s been our plan to play a lot of people, and we were able to do that,” Nickel said. “Outside of Bailey and Hannah Miller, nobody really got into 30 minutes, so we were able to play a lot of different rotations. We were happy to be able to work on those rotations. It will be big for us as the conference tournament and national tournament approaches.”
With the victory, the No. 1 ranked Bears will likely finish the end-of-year rankings as the No. 1 unit in the polls will also open up the conference tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. Life, again, awaits on Thursday in a No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup that will begin at 10 a.m.
“I thought that defensively, we did a good job in both affairs this week,” Nickel said. “We’ve done a lot of things consistently for a long period of time on the defensive end, and that’s really been about playing to our standards and expectations every day. Being able to be No. 1 and go undefeated in the league are byproducts of the little things that we do everyday to prepare ourselves. We’re really happy about it, we’re excited to start postseason play, and we’re looking forward to playing Life again on Thursday, coming out and playing well, and making a run at a conference tournament championship.”