To win any game is emotional and important in its own right. But to dominate Ripon 91-79 on Senior Day at home in front of 788 fans was truly something special for women’s basketball.
In the lobby after the game was senior Jessica Howard, holding flowers and surrounded by family and friends. “I’m from Galesburg,” she says, “so they can all come here. They all live close.”
They may have caught a lot of her games, but it’s not every night that one gets to see what Howard did to Ripon. 24 points from 6-11 shooting in the field, all of which were from deep, while also 6-6 from the free throw line. She is also quite fond of the three ball. One was from almost six feet past the three-point line. When asked how it felt, she answered with a modest, “Uh, pretty good.”
“Usually, when I make those, it doesn’t feel like I’m as far out as I am until I see it some time later,” Howard continued. “And then I’m like, ‘Oh wow, I was [far out].’”
Basketball is a team sport, and so if you want to win it requires more than just one person standing up on every single night. This is a trend I have noticed throughout the season that the Knox Women’s Basketball team lives and dies by, and it was very apparent on Saturday afternoon.
“It was a great team effort today,” Coach Emily Cline noted.
“Jess had a great game, Jodi had a good game, a lot of people played really well,” Cline continued. “And that’s how it’s been. The beauty of this team is that we’ve got a lot of weapons.”
The statistics supported her reasoning: while the Prairie Fire may have been led by Howard’s 24 points, senior Jodi Marver had 17 and five assists, and on top of all that was a whopping 45 bench points. This was almost double the amount that Ripon’s bench had, with 24.
Most apparent was the great tenacity that every single player showed on the floor; whether it be a bench player or a starter, it did not matter. The tenacity made itself known in the full court press Knox ran. They simply did not give up until they caused a turnover.
“We did a good job turning them over today,” Cline said. “Then we converted some of their turnovers. Not all of them, but we did a good job. We do that also to keep the pace at our pace, instead of slowing it down. Ripon likes it slow. We like to speed it up.”
The team was certainly attentive to setting the tempo, which led to Knox getting exactly what Cline wanted: points off of turnovers. In this category, Knox outscored Ripon 41-18.
On Ripon’s 1-2-2 zone, Cline said, “it gave us trouble up there [in Ripon].”
“One of our lowest scoring games was up there. It’s a tough D because they’re packed in and we love to drive and kick. We combat that in the first half by making threes and good drives. In the second half we weren’t able to get our tempo as good as the first half.”
By not as good, she means that they scored only 35 instead of 56. But that’s still good either way you take it.
On the other side, the men’s basketball team’s senior week sendoff was a heartbreaker. Ripon ended up with a 70-69 win on a tip-in during the closing seconds. According to senior Eric Crawford, this game’s “so close but no” result was emblematic of the entire season.
Despite strong play from the duo of Ty Sabin and Kyle Loughrin, each of whom netted over 20 points for Ripon, the Prairie Fire hung close. In four quarters there were 12 lead changes. This was mainly helped on Knox’s side by a hard team effort while on man-to-man defense, and efficient offensive performances from across the board. The bench outscored Ripon’s by 13 and four Knox players garnered 10 points or more while Ripon only had two. The Fire was much more successful when it came to sharing the ball as well, combining for a total of 17 dimes, compared to the Red Hawks’ seven.
The two standout performances for Knox were from senior Mitch Murphy, who scored 20 points on 7-14 shooting, and sophomore Deandre Weathersby, who added a field goal and six assists. In the mix was sophomore Robert Suntken’s clutch threes, which on two separate occasions catapulted Knox into the lead.
In the last minute, it looked as though Knox had the Senior Day win. Murphy collected his own rebound off of a miss and dished it out to sophomore center Mike Martin, who kissed it off the glass for a 69-68 lead with 28 seconds left to go.
All Knox had to do was get the stop, but what happened next was agonizingly quick: Sabin carefully brought the ball up the court for Ripon, then drove around the Knox D and released a heavily contested tear drop. Everyone watched it bounce on the rim for a second except for Ripon’s center, Justin Leistikow, who had already risen up to touch in the game decider. After the bucket, Knox Coach Kevin Walden decided to not call an available time out, and his team had to inbound the ball immediately. With 8.1 seconds till the buzzer, the Prairie Fire’s players scrambled to make something happen, but ultimately did not convert. Instead, they were forced to watch the Ripon side celebrate.
For their last game of the season, the Knox Women’s Basketball team put in a very impressive performance. It is always important to get the win, but it was all the more emotional because it was the last game for five women (seniors Becky Duffy, Nadia Tapfumaneyi, Howard, Jodi Marver and Brittney Price, respectively) who will be graduating at the end of the spring.
“They’re five great young women,” Coach Cline said. “And I’m happy for them. They’ve really changed the face of the program.”
Cline constantly shows her love for the sport through her competitive, passionate nature on the court. As she noted, the team really has experienced a tonal shift over the past year, and it is very apparently from the hard work put in by her and the entire team.
New players will have to step into the now vacant spaces, but we can still cherish what our seniors have given us: an experience, a knowledge of the game and a determined, gritty work ethic. If this team continues at the pace they are at- and continue to learn from their coach and from their upperclassmen (and each other)- I don’t see their trajectory being anywhere but upwards.
Regardless of the season finale’s result, there is hope abound for the men’s basketball team; this season has prepared the juniors for their last year, and at the same time bred fighters out of the underclassmen.
“This team is more cohesive than any team I’ve ever been on,” Crawford said. “And I’ve been playing since I was five. The young guys, they’re going to step up big next year, and did even- we all did- in the latter half of this season… I mean, Orlando [Brown]; Robert Suntken, who gets my vote for MVP of the season; all of them: they’re going to step up and be winners. We just have to keep the faith.”
And I cannot help but agree with him. After seeing how determined the team was on Saturday, it’d be a surprise if these men weren’t pumped for next winter. If the talent grows like it is projected to, Ripon might be in for a rude awakening when it comes time to face off with Knox again.