The Knox women’s basketball team has the chance to surpass their success of last year and make the Midwest Conference Tournament for a second consecutive year.
The women’s basketball team has a great mixture of young talent and returning talent. One of the new additions is assistant coach, Christopher Klassen. Klassen came to the Prairie Fire just a week before the season started. What drew Klassen to Knox was the success from last year’s team – an 11-5 conference record – and the effort to build up the athletic program through renovations to the weight room and gym floor.
“I was excited on my interview, they put a lot of work into the athletic programs here. The weight room is amazing, they re-did the gym room floor,” Klassen said. “They’re making an effort to change the culture of the athletic department. The work is paying off on the court as the women’s basketball program is currently tied for third in the conference.”
At the beginning of the season, the obvious goal was to make the Conference tournament, but things can change along the way.
The team has bought into a defensive mindset, as the Prairie Fire are top two in scoring defense in the entire conference. A big reason for that success is schematic. The Prairie Fire run a two-three zone, but it’s not an average two-three zone. A two-three zone is very team-oriented as opposed to strictly man-to-man. In a two-three, the goal is to force more outside shots and to slow the game down. However, with some pressure from the guards it can be used to cause havoc in the passing lanes.
“We’re one of the only teams in our conference that play zone and it’s not your typical sit back and take away the lanes zone, it’s a pretty aggressive, unorthodox zone,” Klassen said. “We play with a lot of pressure and people are flying around. You know, we’re blessed with a lot of athletes and length, some size, some quickness.”
The goal of a 2-3 zone is that it allows for more help on the perimeter and allows a taller player to stay near the lane and protect the rim.
The Fire think the zone and their effort on defense is what has propelled them to be in position for a MWC tournament berth. Senior forward Morgan Potter, who is top 3 on the team in points per game and rebounds per game, believes the defense is responsible for their success.
“I think it’s helped us guard the perimeter a little bit more. Then being in the zone, even if they’re able to get by the perimeter, I’m still always in the center to guard around the rim,” Potter said.
Freshman point guard Jessica Lee agrees that they’ve worked hard on their defense this year to get them where they need to be.
“Our defense has really stepped up and I feel it’s a big part of why we’ve been winning,” Lee said.
Playing rotation minutes as a freshman is even harder, but Lee has gone through the rough stages and has emerged as a rotation player for the Prairie Fire. Lee is averaging 4.8 points per game, playing 20 minutes per game, and she is tied for second on the team in assists, sitting at 43. The hardest transition for Lee comes with the shot clock, as a player coming out of Nebraska. There are eight states that require a shot clock and Nebraska isn’t one of them.
“The shot clock thing, that was completely different,” said Lee.
The seniors and coaches try their best at making sure the freshman are prepared for time on the floor. Chemistry is an underrated yet key part of any team. Chemistry is what drew Lee to choose Knox.
“They’re really fun and I like their energy. We get along off the court and that translates to on the court,” said Lee.
The continuity is what helps them on the court. Potter is mostly in the middle or on the backline of the 2-3 defense. Her role as the ‘quarterback’ of the defense is vital to the success of the zone.
“The position that I have on defense, it’s easier for me to see the floor and let people know what’s happening,” Potter said.
While Potter is more of a reserved leader, senior guard Taliah Ellisis the heart of the team. If you watch any Prairie Fire game, you’ll most likely see — or hear — Ellis.
“[Ellis] really wants to get back to the conference tournament. She’s just hungry, and it’s not just in the games, in the practice she’s vocal, she’s diving on the floor, she’s getting on people in a positive way,” Klassen said.
In addition to being a team captain, Ellis knows just how important energy is to a team and she brings it consistently.
“It’s important to keep the energy up, even if it’s just one person. For me personally, if my energy is down, and I have that one person that’s like ‘hey Taliah keep going,’ trying to pick you up,” Ellis said. “I feel if I can be that one person that if someone’s bad or the energy’s down, I can be that one person that brings energy back to the game.”
Ellis played behind Naja Woods ‘18 in the past who was a year ahead of her. Woods ended up getting hurt last preseason which thrust Ellis into the starting point guard role. On the team, they have big sister and little sister. Woods was Ellis’ big sister, and now Ellis is Lee’s big sister.
“I try to help her out at practice, encourage her as much as possible, and off the court let her know that I’m always here for her,” said Ellis.
With only four games left before the end of the season, the end is near for Ellis and Potter and they’re fully aware of it.
“Definitely coming into my senior year it’s changed mostly because it’s my last season. Now I only have four games left and the conference tournament isn’t guaranteed,” Potter said. “Putting up shots, getting those rebounds, making that extra pass have a lot more importance.”
“We’ve briefly talked about it but our approach is to take it one game at a time. Every game has to be championship game mindset,” Klassen said.
Staying focused is the key. Last Thursday, the Fire lost a very close game against one of the weaker teams in the conference at Illinois College.
“We’ve had a couple games where we just kinda showed up and maybe thought we were going to win, and the other team was hungrier and more focused and we’ve lost a couple games like that this year,” Klassen said. “Then we turn around and we’ve had some huge upsets. We’ve won at St. Norbert which has never happened in Knox history.”
Ellis believes the team needs to focus on the last four games of the season in order to try and secure their spot in the conference tournament.
“You want to get to the bigger picture, but you have to take it one game at a time,” Ellis said.
The women will continue their season on Feb. 9 when they play Beloit College at 1 p.m.