It’s an accomplishment that every coach only hopes that they’ll be able to achieve in their coaching lifetime.
For fifth-year, yes, fifth-year head coach Jeff Nickel, he’s already won four Mid-South Conference Tournament Championships across 80 percent of his collegiate coaching lifespan. And if his Shawnee State Bears keep it up, more could very well be on the horizon this season.
Behind two free throws from Hannah Miller with four-tenths of a second left that staved off a late Campbellsville (Ky.) rally, the Bears were able to claim an 81-79 victory over the Tigers in Sunday evening’s Mid-South Conference Tournament title bout as Shawnee State won its 25th consecutive contest en route to moving to 30-3 on the year and likely sewing up a No. 1 overall seed in the upcoming NAIA Division I Tournament.
For Nickel, he couldn’t ask for any more out of his players if it were humanly possible.
“I thought that we got outstanding play from our veteran players, and it was a total team win,” Nickel said. “I’m really proud of our team and this program, and what we’ve been able to achieve. Going 48-3 in Mid-South Conference play over the last 51 games is an incredible achievement, and I’m just really proud of our team, our staff, our fans, and our players. We just appreciate all the support that we’ve had. We’re just very, very thankful for the people that have believed in us and have been behind us all year.”
In order to win a conference tournament, or, in Shawnee State’s case, accomplish the feat across four straight seasons of action, one must receive the play from seniors that will allow the unit to thrive under serious heat.
Madison Ridout and Lydia Poe, who have grown up together all of their lives, were big again as Ridout notched 11 points and seven rebounds on Saturday afternoon in a 70-63 victory over Cumberland (Tenn.), then obtained 18 and seven in Sunday’s victory. Poe, meanwhile, continued to be a difference maker off of the bench throughout the tournament, obtaining 13 points, six rebounds, a block, and a steal on 4-of-5 shooting and a 5-of-6 mark in the charity stripe against the Phoenix and nine points and four rebounds on 3-of-5 shooting and a 3-of-4 mark from the line against the Tigers.
“Madison did a great job defensively the entire game,” Nickel said. “She just did a lot of the intangible things out there that your leaders normally do, and Madison’s been a great leader for our team all season long. She’s been able to lead by example. I was really proud of her play. Lydia was huge for us as well. I thought she did a good job defensively and was able to really get in there, mix it up, compete, and grab some key rebounds. She did a very solid job for us. I was really happy with how they both came up big for us in big games (on Saturday and Sunday).”
The grittiest in-game performances, however, came from newly-minted 1,000-point scorer Ashton Lovely, who continued to impress with her ability to fill in the gaps where needed the most. After collecting a team-high 19 points and adding seven rebounds, two blocks, and two steals to the table on Saturday, Lovely overcame serious migraines following the 70-63 win over Cumberland to put together a key 12-point, four-rebound effort on Sunday afternoon.
“Ashton was huge for us (on Sunday),” Nickel said. “She hit some big time pressure shots in key moments and stayed the course. She had a migraine on Saturday evening that was so severe that I didn’t even know if she was going to be able to play on Sunday, but she was able to battle through that somehow, and I’m really proud of how she was able to overcome that. I’m proud of how she’s overcome different obstacles in her career in general. She’s matured so much over the last couple of years, and she’s able to pick up on what we need done. She just finds a way to come in and do it. The key sign of greatness is when you can come in and fill a void, and that’s what Ashton does for us.”
However, while the above trio have been the main storylines during the course of the season due to their effectiveness in their roles, the additional Bears were pretty stout, too, to say the least.
Miller posted 14 points and four rebounds on Saturday, then added another 14-point effort on Sunday on 4-of-8 shooting and a 4-of-4 mark from the free throw line. Bailey Cummins proved to be fantastic both days distributing the basketball, posting six assists to just two turnovers on Saturday for a 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio before adding an 18-point, seven-assist game on 7-of-10 shooting on Sunday. And Shania Massie put together a huge nine-point, seven-rebound, two-steal, one-block effort off of the pine to continue to — along with Poe — supply headaches with the bench play.
“Hannah was big again with a clutch basket at the end of the game. She was able to make key plays at the end again. I was really, really proud of her play down the stretch and the big shots that she hit. She was just huge for us the entire night on both ends of the floor. Shania was just involved in everything. She played great defense, was able to rebound the basketball, and was able to shoot the basketball. There’s so many areas that she’s performed in all season long, and I’m just really proud of her. Bailey just continues to set the table for everybody and does a great job of getting into our offensive and defensive sets. She’s the epitome of a lead guard, but has the scoring punch to go along with it. She’s just as solid as a rock for us. I’m really proud of her and her growth just from her freshman season to her sophomore campaign.”
Even the freshmen, who, in reality, were strangers to the conference tournament stage before this weekend, played strong basketball. Sienna King supplied seven rebounds and four points on Saturday, then followed that effort up with a three-rebound, two-point, one-block effort on Sunday, while Hagen Schaefer, Lakin Smith, and Leah Wingeier all supplied crucial minutes throughout the weekend.
“CeCe played a great role defensively, and did a great job of contesting shots while boxing out. She played great post defense for us the entire night and just helped us so much. Laken played a really key stretch in the third quarter with CeCe when Lydia had three and four fouls, and was really able to come through by playing really solid for us, and Hagen played a key stretch in the second quarter when Laken ran into foul trouble. Leah was able to pressure the inbounder on an out-of-bounds play that could’ve been the game-winner, and made it difficult for the inbounder to get a good look at an open target, so it was a total team victory.”
And as if the victory couldn’t get any sweeter, consider this — the Bears won the Mid-South Conference Tournament title while defeating Campbellsville three times in a single season to become the first unit to accomplish such a feat, a feat that the last two SSU units, which went a combined 60-9, can’t even boast.
“Our success is a byproduct of what we do every day,” Nickel said. “The girls play with integrity and respect for the game while performing at a very high level. We have very high expectations for our players and our program, and our overall success is a byproduct of that. With the four Mid-South Conference Tournament titles and the three Mid-South regular season titles, we’ve won the last seven MSC Championships in a row, and every time I think about it, I can look back to our standards and expectations as a reason why we’ve gotten there.”
The Shawnee State women’s basketball program, in a partnership with the Portsmouth Buffalo Wild Wings location, will be hosting another NAIA Selection Show party at the location. It will commence on Wednesday at 6 p.m. and will reveal who the Bears will be playing in the NAIA Division I Opening Round. The final NAIA D-I Poll will be released on the same day — a poll that SSU will also hold serve in as the nation’s No. 1 unit.
“We appreciate Buffalo Wild Wings and all of the support that they have given us in broadcasting our conference tournament and our national tournament,” Nickel said. “It means the world. We’re really excited about the draw on Wednesday.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT