In producing the program’s first winning record in five years, Linfield not only adapted to a coaching change and new style of play, but also laid the groundwork/foundation for future ascension up the Northwest Conference ladder.
First-year head coach Casey Bunn guided the Wildcats to a 13-12 overall record and share of fifth place in the Northwest Conference at 6-10. Take out a couple of lopsided defeats to undefeated George Fox (84-54) and league runner-up Puget Sound (77-54) and the Wildcats were competitive in every game, and lost three league contests by five points or less.
“I only had four months with them. For them to progress as much as they did in that short of time was pretty incredible,” Bunn said. “Their mental growth off the court, and the way they matured as players and teammates and leaders was incredible. The way they learned how to approach the game a lot differently really allowed them to excel.”
Linfield got out to a promising start, winning five of six preseason games, but an early start to the conference season, the first week in December, resulted in back-to-back double-digit defeats on the road at Whitman and Whitworth, two consistent NWC Tournament participants.
“Going 4-0 in California allowed them to see results right away. Having a decent preseason obviously helped our record, but then starting league it was almost a new world. They were a little hesitant,” Bunn said. “I was really happy with our second round and I thought we made massive improvements.”
The turning point of the year came during the last game of the first round. Coming off a 30-point loss at George Fox, sitting at 1-6 in league play and facing a seven-point third-quarter deficit, the ‘Cats rallied for a 59-53 victory at Pacific. Including that game, Linfield went 5-4 in its last nine contests, including a big win over Whitworth, revenge victories against Lewis & Clark and Willamette, a completed season sweep of Pacific and a close game against second-ranked George Fox.
“We were playing our best basketball at the end, which is what we want to do, we were just bummed we couldn’t keep playing,” Bunn said.
Two key areas of improvement for the Wildcats: defensive rebounding and transition offense. Linfield finished in the top half of most rebounding categories, ranking first in both defensive (28.4) and overall rebounds (41.1) by the end of the year. The team’s increased ability to push the ball off forced turnovers proved key in some big games and, coupled with a 40.7 field goal percentage, contributed to 66.4 points per game, third most in the league.
Decision-making, however, remained an area of weakness for the Wildcats. Linfield led the league in turnovers (19.4 per game) and that allowed some games get away from them, particularly in late-game losses to nonleague opponents Warner Pacific and Northwest Christian and a one-point loss to Lewis & Clark.
For the first time in two years, two Wildcats made appearances on the all-league team. Combining for nearly 20 points per night, honorable mentions Quincey Gibson (10.6) and Jessica McMillan (8.9) proved to be Linfield’s most consistent scorers. Gibson averaged a near-league high 35.5 minutes while McMillan led the league in rebounding for much of the year, ultimately finishing third, and became Linfield’s all-time leading shot blocker.
“We needed Quincey to be a scoring point guard. Her ability to keep us in our sets and set up our offense but still get her shots was important,” Bunn said. “Jessica was the heart of the team, she led in so many ways on and off the court. And for her to come out of her shell offensively was huge for us.”
Genna Hughes and Audrey McMillan stepped into huge roles in the paint when last year’s leading scorer Amantha Hood went down with a preseason injury. Both Hughes and McMillan averaged better than six points and three rebounds per game.
By improving her defense, Dani Krier worked her way into the starting lineup toward the end of the year, and supplied an average of 7.1 points, including seven double-digit efforts. Riley Graham showed her true character by playing significant adversity – in the form of injuries – while Jade Everage was a spark off the bench and stepped up defensively in some key games.
The Wildcats lose two seniors – Jessica McMillan and Hannah Depew – and their 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per game to graduation, but with an experienced and confident veteran core slated to return, should continue to become a greater threat in the ultra-competitive Northwest Conference.