A leadership change has the Linfield women’s basketball team transitioning to an up-tempo style, focusing on heightened defensive intensity and developing greater mental toughness with the goal of growing increasingly competitive in the Northwest Conference.
First-year head coach Casey Bunn has the Wildcats hard at work, buying into a new philosophy that gives the team a different look, and hopefully a few more victories to equal or improve upon a fifth-place league finish last year.
“Playing both ends of the court, fully, is a huge adjustment for them. We’ve been focusing a lot on defense and our philosophy and strategy surrounding that,” Bunn said. “I want our defense to be our best offense and we have to base everything off how we bring it defensively. I want us to be defensive-minded. The adjustments that go into that have been a struggle, but I think they are handling it really well and I’ve seen huge improvement in that area.”
In addition to a new coach’s system and philosophy, the Wildcats must also adapt to some changes in the game itself. While the most obvious difference is the four 10-minute quarter format, a switch from two 20-minute halves, Bunn expects the new free throw bonus rules to have a greater impact on the game. No longer do teams earn one-and-one opportunities after seven team fouls, and two shots after 10 team fouls each half.
“The biggest adjustment that can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on how you play it, is the two free throws after five team fouls each quarter,” she said. “We’re going to try to make that new rule be on our side and as much of an advantage as possible. We focus a lot on pressure free throws.”
Bunn faced an interesting conundrum throughout the preseason: determining a starting five. It’s a good problem she’s happy to have, as it reflects how the Wildcats have risen to the challenge of a new system and competed hard in practice, as well as the team’s overall depth and athleticism.
Notably, Linfield returns both of its leading scorers from a season ago. Amantha Hood (12.3 points, 7.4 rebounds per game) and Hannah Depew (9.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg) should draw plenty of defensive attention, but six other returners topped the Linfield scoring column in at least one game last year.
Quincey Gibson, Dani Krier, Paige Graham and Riley Graham are all dangerous threats from the outside. Krier owns the career record for 3-point field goal percentage (.424) while Gibson ranks third (.379). Paige Graham looks to build upon a strong finish to her freshman season, while older sister Riley is a defensive stopper who can also shoot the ball with accuracy.
Providing good support for Gibson at the point guard position, Jade Everage also chipped in 3.1 points per game last year, including a 19-point offensive explosion against Willamette.
Jessica McMillan, one of just two seniors on the team, is an all-around contributor who continues to hone her skills both the inside and outside the paint. Defensively, she’s ranked among the league’s best shot blockers in each of the past two seasons, totaling 30 over 25 games as a junior. Genna Hughes and Annalise Beshears add depth in the post.
The 10 returning Wildcats help provide stability for four newcomers, including three listed at 5-foot-11 or taller.
Audrey McMillan is a strong and relentless presence at the forward position, despite being a bit undersized for her role. Fellow rookie Cailyn Cattell and sophomore transfer Mariah Hellebrandt should also expect to log significant minutes. Linfield’s lone incoming guard, Becca Noble brings quickness and defensive-mindedness, two traits that are perfect for Bunn’s up-tempo system.
One key for the Wildcats is to stay mentally tough through the ups and downs that naturally occur within a basketball game, and not allow issues to compound and negatively impact the team’s progress or the outcome of any given contest.
“We’ve been working on working through mistakes and not letting one mistake turn into three or four or five,” Bunn said. “Having players communicate in that moment, as mistakes happen, to resolve issues is huge.”
Linfield is coming off a fifth-place finish in the team standings, but has yet to achieve a winning record against conference opponents or finished in the top four since the 2006-07 season. Battling for one of four league playoff spots is not expected to be any easier this year; the always-tough Northwest Conference includes preseason-No. 4 George Fox and a trio of teams receiving votes in the Top 25: Whitman, Whitworth and Puget Sound.
But focusing on process and progress before outcomes, Bunn and the Wildcats are dedicated to working hard and fostering a positive team atmosphere.
“Our biggest leap since the beginning of the season has been the cohesiveness of the team: how well they’re getting on and off the court, and how good of teammates they’re being to each other,” Bunn said. “That was a huge step.”
Linfield opens the league schedule in the middle of its preseason stretch, December 4-5 at Whitman and Whitworth, and resumes conference play January 8 at home versus Pacific Lutheran.