25 straight wins.
Another Mid-South Conference Regular Season and Tournament sweep.
No. 1 in the country.
And the NAIA Division I Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
The aforementioned is exactly what the Shawnee State University women’s basketball program has accomplished during the 2017-18 campaign en route to putting itself on the map with arguably one of the very best campaigns the school has ever accomplished so far, even with the rich tradition that has preceded this season’s group in prior years.
Now, Shawnee State will begin setting foot on its final goal — that being a NAIA Division I Tournament Championship. To do that, however, the Bears will have to stay true to their principles and take each game as it comes.
That begins on Thursday evening, when Shawnee State faces off against No. 8 Grand View (Ia.) in the NAIA Division I Opening Round inside the Rimrock Auto Arena in Billings, Mont. at 6:15 p.m. Mountain Standard Time — 8:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time — for the right to advance onto the NAIA Division I Second Round and a date with either No. 4 Wayland Baptist (Texas) or No. 5 Lyon (Ark.) at that stage on Friday evening.
For Jeff Nickel, the focus is certainly staying on the Vikings — especially considering the fact that seeing a competitive opponent in the NAIA Opening Round is a certainty with 31 of the 32 teams in the tourney having won at least 20 or more games this past season.
“The task at hand is Grand View,” Nickel said. “They’re a team that shares the basketball very well, runs the break well, and is a fast-paced team that shoots the basketball very well. They’re definitely a team that poses strong threats. What’s so different about this tournament compared to a lot of other tournaments is the fact that you’re playing a team that was ranked in the Top 25 for most of the season right out of the gate. That’s your opponent, so there are no easy games in this tournament. They present a lot of challenges that will make this a tough game, but we’re looking forward to it. This is the first step of our journey.”
And that step, as all of the other steps have been before this present stage, will certainly have its challenges.
Grand View, who enters the contest with a 22-10 overall mark, is certainly not a slouch, especially when one looks at the overall numbers. The Vikings began the season with an 11-9 overall mark and sat just 4-5 in the Heart of America Athletic Conference as of Jan. 20, but after obtaining a 75-70 victory over Graceland (Ia.), Grand View didn’t lose another game in the regular season and ultimately advanced to the Heart of America Semifinals before being ousted by the eventual champion of the Heart, Central Methodist (Mo.) by a 91-81 tally.
Still, the late season run by Grand View deservedly gave the Vikings the final spot in the NAIA Division I field, where Shawnee State is facing, besides itself, one of the hottest teams going in the NAIA.
That fact is arguably due to the balance that Grand View has present on its roster, which is evident considering that five players are averaging at least seven points per contest and another six are averaging at least three points per bout.
All 11 players are shooting better than 40 percent from the field. Blair Sillman’s 11 points and 3.3 rebounds per affair, Bailee Arnburg’s 10.6 points and 2.9 assists per bout, and Kiana Peterson’s 8.4 points and 1.6 blocks per contest, lead a unit that can hurt you in multiple facets.
“You’ve got to be really solid defensively,” Nickel said. “Grand View runs a cutting-based offense. They’re going to employ a lot of five-out and put a lot of pressure on the rim with their cuts. It’s going to be imperative for us to jump the ball, be active in the gaps, and have a good line in doing so. They’re a good team that back cuts and has a little bit of the Princeton concepts built into their offense. They put a lot of pressure on the rim and really try to get everybody to kind of compact around the basket, which really opens up their three-point shots.”
Grand View, who runs what Nickel says is a variation of the Princeton-style offense — an offense known for constant back-cuts — uses that offense to open up its looks from deep. This area is where the Vikings — who have nailed 258 of their 690 three-point attempts for a proficient 37 percent clip from beyond the arc — are very, very strong at and have made their improbable run into the postseason. An amazing 11 players on the Grand View roster are shooting at least 34.2 percent or better from distance.
“They’re really good on the break,” Nickel said. “They might be as good as any team we’ve played all season as far as the running game is concerned. They do an outstanding job of gathering a rebound, making the correct outlet pass, hockey passing it, and either shooting a three on the break or attacking the rim. They’re really going to put some pressure on containment, and that’s going to be a big part of our gameplan.”
However, it’s safe to say that Grand View hasn’t played an opponent that is as proficient on the defensive end as Shawnee State has been over the course of the year. The Bears are fourth in the entire country in defensive three-point field goal percentage (24.8 percent) and fifth in defensive field goal percentage (33.9 percent) — and for a team that is as engaged as it currently is, that is certainly a dangerous and scary recipe for any opponent to go up against.
“We have had a good week of practice,” Nickel said. “I’ve felt like we’ve had a really good level of focus and have stuck to what has got us to where we are. We’ve had good practices. I feel like our kids are focused, and this preparation’s all going to lead up to what is going to happen during the game on Thursday. When you get out there, you put your best foot forward, play to your standards, and take it one possession at a time.”
Defensively, Grand View will employ a man-to-man look, but for the nation’s second-highest scoring offense (81.5) and second-best shooting unit (47.2 percent), Shawnee State has been nothing less than proficient against any look that it has seen over the course of the year.
The Bears may only have 10 players on its entire roster, but all 10 of those players have produced in crucial minutes, and six of those 10 players — Madison Ridout, Ashton Lovely, Hannah Miller, Bailey Cummins, Lydia Poe, and Shania Massie — are averaging at least 8.5 points or more per contest and are shooting at least 40 percent from the field, and the Bears, as a team, are shooting a proficient 252-of-689 (36.6 percent) from behind the line themselves
Ridout (14.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.8 steals per contest on 52 percent shooting), Lovely (14.4 points, five rebounds, 1.2 steals per bout), Miller (14.4 points, four rebounds, 2.4 assists, one steal per game), and Cummins (13 points, 4.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.8 steals on 49 percent shooting) are all averaging double-digits for SSU, while Poe and Massie have been outstanding off of the bench with their 9.1 points and 5.8 rebounds and 8.5 points, four rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game, respectively. The freshman class, which includes Laken Smith, Sienna King, Leah Wingeier, and Hagen Schaefer, have all produced in key areas when their number has been called upon to round out an outstanding group effort.
A group effort that has remained consistent on taking things as they come, instead of looking ahead — as the No. 1 team in the country should do.
“I believe that our kids have done a really good job,” Nickel said. “I believe that they’re focused on Grand View. I don’t think they’re focused on who we might play in the second or third round. They’re solely focused on that moment. I believe we’re all on the same page and we all are focused on this first game and what we’re supposed to be doing. Grand View’s going to be a really tough game, and as a whole, there’s a lot of balance and parody in this tournament this year. I can definitely see a lot of upsets.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT