Last Tuesday night, the Knox College women’s basketball team hit the locker room for halftime, trailing Illinois College by 15 points. Their chance to clinch a berth in the Midwest Conference Tournament seemed to be in doubt after scoring only three points in the second quarter.
Nevertheless, The Prairie Fire came out in the second half firing on all cylinders, outscoring the Lady Blues 35 to 15 down the stretch.
It was two free throws by sophomore Jarrelyn McCall with 16 seconds left that helped secure the 48 to 43 victory and the program’s first trip to the conference tournament in 21 years.
The women’s team last made it to the conference tournament in 1997 and they finished ten and four in conference play under then-head coach Jane Stangl.
Senior Hailey Leinart finished last Tuesday’s game with 15 points, to go along with sophomore Kyra Huffman’s 10 point, eight rebound and four assist game that provided the spark for the Fire in the second half.
For junior Karlie Thorn, making in to the tournament is special, especially with the support the team is receiving.
“It’s more of a pride thing, because the whole school is really behind us. Especially for women’s sports it’s a big thing, because a lot of times it is looked at that the women’s teams aren’t as good or don’t deserve as much,” Thorn said. “The women’s teams are doing really well and it adds on to what the soccer team is doing and just shows that we can do anything that the men’s teams can do.”
With the win against Illinois College and Saturday’s 62-56 loss to Cornell, Knox is now nine and three in conference play as of Feb. 5. Those nine wins leave them one win shy of tying the program record for conference wins in a season.
Head Coach Emily Cline says, “It has always been my goal since I have been here to make the program better and part of making it better is being competitive within the Midwest conference. We have been competitive, but I think making it to the tournament is kind of that next step up on getting where we want to be.”
In Cline’s 10 years at the helm of the women’s program she has racked up 91 wins, which makes her the all-time winningest coach in Prairie Fire women’s basketball history. In the last four years, her team has improved their overall win total each year. The 14 wins for this year’s team mark the most in Cline’s tenure.
Many of the players are crediting their success this year to challenging themselves more in the offseason heading into the 2018 campaign.
“We put in more lifting and more intensive conditioning. We would get up at six a.m. and run in the gym for an hour,” Thorn said.
Junior Taliah Ellis added, “Running in the gym, not even touching a basketball for conditioning. Getting us in shape for what we have been doing this whole season.”
The intensive offseason has led to a boost in team field goal, 3-point and free throw percentages.
Throughout this season, they have put a larger priority on in-season individual and team workouts.
“Coach [Oliver] Wiseman is doing really well throughout this entire year with individual workouts. If you text him before practice or after practice or during the day asking to get an extra workout in, he’s always willing to do it,” Thorn said.
On the court, many team members point to a upgrade in team chemistry over past year’s teams that is starting to pay dividends. “We have all the tools, we just need to work together,” McCall said.
As of Feb. 5., all five starters for Knox are averaging double digits in points per game. Lonoke, Ark., native McCall leads the way with a conference sixth-best 14.5 points. Junior Morgan Potter says the reason for this success is, “trusting that my teammates on the floor are going to be where they have to be.”
Aside from their preparation both on and off the court for this season, motivation from last year’s glimpse at newfound success has also made a difference.
“I feel like last year we got a taste, we were so close to making it to the conference tournament. This year just made us push ourselves even more, because we had the potential and we knew last year there was little things that we could definitely work on as a team and get better,” Ellis said.
Making it to the conference tournament was certainly one of their main goals. However, Cline believes that her team has what it takes to win the whole thing.
“We have to play focused and consistently and do the things that we talk about all the time,” Cline said. “I think that we have to score inside and out and play great half-court defense to win the tournament and I think that we are capable of all of those things.”
Their trip to the conference tournament will only be the program’s fifth appearance. They still have games remaining against Beloit, Grinnell and Ripon before beginning tournament play. Earlier this season, the Prairie Fire knocked off Beloit by 24 points and fell at home to Ripon by 10.
The 2018 Midwest Conference Tournament is set to tip-off on February 23rd at 5 pm. The location will be determined by the team that has the best finish throughout conference play.