The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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January 24, 2013

Courrier column: MSU women face critical weekend

MANKATO — Coming into the season, the Minnesota State women’s basketball team had a new coach, hired just a couple months before practice began, and its best player was coming back from major knee surgery.

The program had generated some momentum last season by winning 18 games and getting invited to the national tournament, but those unknowns made it tough to predict the success of this season’s team.

This weekend, the Mavericks face a critical two-game homestand, one that could establish the team as a Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference contender or a middle-of-the-pack squad that will need to fight for a home game in the early round of the league tournament.

Tonight, the Mavericks (12-4) take on Wayne State (11-5), which won the first meeting between these teams 78-56. On Saturday, Augustana (14-2) comes to town, certainly mindful of the 80-79 loss to Minnesota State on Jan. 4.

It’s been something of a rollercoaster season so far for Minnesota State, which won its first seven games before starting a stretch where it never won or lost more than two in a row.

Junior Ali Wilkinson, who missed nearly all of last season with a knee injury, has come back better and stronger, leading the team with 18.6 points and 8.8 rebounds, making herself a midseason candidate for conference player of the year. She’s shooting 57.2 percent from the field, including 47.6 percent from 3-point range, and 82.0 percent at the free-throw line.

But over the last nine games, when the Mavericks went 5-4, there hasn’t been consistent help from the other players. Point guard Aubrey Davis, who is averaging 10.7, has had a 23-point game but she’s also had a game with three points. Karlee Gengenbacher, who is also averaging 10.3 points, has just two double-digit scoring games in the last nine.

The Mavericks have committed 17 more fouls than opponents, allowing 52 more trips to the free-throw line. The defense has improved over the season, but to defeat Wayne State and Augustana, the defense has to be better.

You can easily make the case that Wayne State and Augustana are the best teams in the conference, but the Mavericks are 7-0 at home. Win two this weekend and the Mavericks have a shot at the conference title. Split, and the Mavericks will be in a good fight for a top-half finish in the South Division and a home playoff game with eight games remaining in the regular season.

Lose two, and it will be tough, though the schedule is favorable. The combined record of the final eight opponents is 62-75.

It was tough to predict how the Mavericks would fare this season, and it’s still hard to predict what will happen this weekend. Coaches will rarely say they have a “must-win” game coming up, but it seems like the Mavericks need to win at least one game to keep hopes of postseason play alive.

Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, email at ccourrier@mankatofreepress.com, follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.

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