Women’s Basketball Column: Warhawks no longer one-dimensional

 

Jan. 29

By Kevin Cunningham

Last season, head coach Keri Carollo led her women to their finest season in school history, finishing second in the NCAA Tournament, losing to undefeated DePauw University, 69-51.

UW-Whitewater fell short to the Tigers, a team which shot 61 percent from the field that night in Holland, Mich., and has not lost a game since March 2012. There was nothing the Warhawks could do that night to stop DePauw.

Shooting 61 percent from the field in a basketball game is almost an unimaginable feat. The ’Hawks are built to be an up-tempo team, trapping and pressuring opponents into playing a game they are uncomfortable in.

CunninghamWEB
Kevin Cunningham

The Tigers were not phased that night, breaking the Warhawks’ press, hitting nearly every shot they took, and ended up forcing more turnovers than the ’Hawks, which is uncharacteristic for a Carollo-led club.

In every game the Warhawks played last season, including the NCAA Tournament, it seemed as though they had the advantage at the guard position. Whether guards Kaitlyn Thill, Megan Theune, Mary Merg, Abbie Reeves and Sam Quandt were going up against opponents’ guards who were nominated for All-American honors or not, the ’Hawks commonly outplayed the opposition.

Last season, the guard play was the ’Hawks’ strong suit. In the post, Carollo’s team was not often outmatched either, featuring senior Cortney Kumerow and freshman Lisa Palmer, while junior Amy Mandrell was a key contributor off the bench.

Kumerow was a 6-foot-1-inch presence in the paint, while Palmer was tenacious around the basket, making any basketball fan appreciate the way she played the game. The post play was never a question mark, but they didn’t have as much of an advantage as the guards often had.

2013-14 Season
Coming into this season, Carollo had many guards to use at her disposal yet again. Thill, now a senior, is one of the best point guards in the entire country. She is already the school record-holder in steals and is currently averaging 4.5 steals per game this season.

Because Kumerow graduated, the Warhawks had a hole to fill at the center position. Theune had graduated as well, so Reeves and Mandrell were supposed to step in at the guard and center positions. A few weeks before the season started, the projected starting lineup and rotation became uneasy to predict, as Palmer suffered a season-ending knee injury.

With only one key contributing post player from last season’s team, Mandrell was set to start at the center position, and Carollo decided to go with a four-guard lineup to complete her starting five. Thill, Merg, Reeves, Katie Burton and Mandrell have started each of the 18 games so far for the ’Hawks.

In the team’s first 14 games this season, the No. 4 preseason-ranked team in the country, according to D3hoops.com, started 11-3 overall, losing its three games to teams that appeared in last season’s NCAA Tournament. The Warhawks were having a good year, but they were not living up to preseason expectations.

The top-notch guard play still was present, but the paint had been the team’s Achilles heel, as the ’Hawks won the rebounding battle in only seven of its 14 games. Mandrell was putting up big numbers at the center position, but with the next tallest player in the starting lineup being 5-feet-10-inches tall, not only height, but length was an issue.

In many of the NCAA Tournament games last season as the tournament went on, even with Palmer healthy, the top-ranked teams were often much longer than UW-Whitewater. Despite this, the guards were able to create enough havoc to keep the ’Hawks advancing in the tournament.

Ruchti’s Presence
In the 15th game of this season, Carollo received a boost from a player that had not recorded a minute in a basketball game in her collegiate career at UW-Whitewater. Senior Kristen Ruchti, a 6-foot-2-inch center who had last been seen competing on the volleyball court for the Warhawks in the fall, was ready to step in and give the team exactly what they had been missing.

Carollo said she wanted to ease Ruchti into playing this season. When taking a look at Ruchti’s first game, she may have been eased in, but her 11-point, 11-rebound performance was a quick showing that the future looked bright for the ’Hawks.

Since Ruchti has stepped onto the court, she has averaged 10 points and six rebounds in only 18 minutes per game, and the team is 4-0, defeating four teams in the WIAC. She brings a presence on defense in the interior which can’t be matched by many across the country.

During the team’s 96-50 win against UW-River Falls, Ruchti recorded a block on one end that got a roaring cheer from the crowd and she followed it with an outlet pass that got the ’Hawks out in transition, a place where they often thrive.

On offense, being 6-foot-2-inches, Ruchti often has an advantage whenever she is in the game, forcing all opponents’ eyes on her, if not double teams in the post.

When receiving a lot of attention with the ball, she will find open shooters on the wings, often throwing pinpoint, bullet passes which setup 3-point opportunities. The Warhawks have a number of quality shooters on the team in Thill, Merg, Reeves, Burton, Andrea Olsen, Reilly Stewart and Clare Gloede.

When watching Ruchti play, it is easy to see the impact she has on the game, despite the smaller number of minutes she is playing. As the season goes on, it will be impossible to keep her off the court given her early success.

What she does, not only offensively, but defensively, is invaluable to the way Carollo’s team is built. The Warhawks are undefeated since Ruchti has entered the fold, and in no way, shape or form, can be considered one-dimensional.

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