Familiarity could breed tremendous success for the Linfield women’s basketball program, benefitting from the guidance of second-year head coach Casey Bunn-Wilson and the experience of the program’s largest senior class in nearly a decade.
Among the team’s nine returners are four fourth-year players, three of which played significant roles for a team that registered a winning record and fifth-place league finish a year ago.
With an focus on up-tempo basketball, rebounding and limiting their opponents’ offensive opportunities, the 2016-17 Wildcats have sights sets on cracking into the top four of the competitive Northwest Conference, which would translate into the program’s third appearance into the league playoffs and first since the 2006-07 season.
Continuity from last season, as well as a commitment to getting better each day, could be early harbingers of success for the Wildcats.
“We’re so much further along. They’re a lot more prepared, they know the expectations and they came in ready,” Bunn-Wilson said of her team. “Their work ethic has been awesome, and they’re getting things a lot more quickly. They put in a lot of work over the summer, and it shows.”
Linfield can build upon some its successes from last season, notably free throw shooting and rebounding. The ‘Cats topped the NWC in total rebounding and earned the second-most opportunities at the charity stripe.
“We want to known as the team that rebounds the ball and plays good defense,” Bunn-Wilson said. “That being said, our league is very tough and I think it’s going to be a challenge for us to get there.”
To facilitate an up-tempo style, Linfield will rely on its talented and interchangeable ball handlers, a luxury that allows the team to feature, at times, a three-guard lineup.
Senior point guard Quincey Gibson, the team’s only double-digit scorer (10.6) a year ago, remains an integral piece of the offense and should be freed up for even more scoring opportunities as Jade Everage and freshman Erin Burns continue to develop. Everage is also a key component of Linfield’s defensive strategy as a spark off the bench and momentum changer.
Beyond the 3-point arc is the territory of veteran shooters Riley Graham, Dani Krier and Paige Graham. Paige, a taller guard at 5-foot-10, can also swing to the small forward position, looking to attack the lane and exploiting potential mismatches in the paint. All three are expected to supply a considerable amount of offense.
Though the Wildcat roster is guard heavy, the presence of two 6-footers among a solid group of post players help give the team a dangerous inside-outside attack.
Audrey McMillan, who supplied 6.9 points off the bench last year, should assume a more significant scoring role in her second collegiate season.
“She’s always been a solid defensive player,” Bunn-Wilson said, “but she’s looking for her shot and to attack a lot more, versus last year when she was more of a facilitator.”
Providing leadership for the “bigs” is Annalise Beshears, back for her senior season. Mariah Hellebrandt has shown tremendous improvement while Molly Danielson is well on her way to an impactful freshman campaign. Genna Hughes, who averaged 6.4 points and 4.4 rebounds, joins the team midway through the year after a study abroad experience.
In addition to tactical focus areas such as rebounding, defense, and cutting down on turnovers, the ongoing development of the freshman class throughout the year will also influence Linfield’s on-court success.
“Our freshmen have been doing a good job of buying in early,” Bunn-Wilson said. “They’re competing. Our practices are tough and they compete really hard against each other, and that prepares us well for game situations.”
A tough preseason schedule, which includes matchups against Corban and a trio of California road games, should help the ‘Cats prepare for the Northwest Conference opener at Puget Sound, a regular conference tournament team, December 2.