“Improvement and growth.”
Simply put, those two words best characterize Linfield women’s basketball in 2013-14. Playing with perhaps the youngest roster in one of one of the most competitive leagues in the nation, the Wildcats made significant strides, both in terms of tangible statistics and palpable competitiveness from night to night.
Vaulting from tied for last place to sixth in the Northwest Conference, Linfield tripled its overall win total from all of last season and claimed five league victories, including a signature, 11-point road victory over Lewis & Clark, a regular conference postseason tournament participant in recent years. Perhaps most encouraging is how strong the Wildcats finished the year, winning two of their last three games.
“I’m very excited about the foundation that we finally have for the program,” said head coach Robin Potera-Haskins. “It takes a while to get the type of student-athletes that are able to excel not just in the classroom but also on the basketball court, and I felt that we did a really good job being exceptionally competitive.”
Statistically, one of the Wildcats’ greatest improvements came in the form of 3-point shooting. In an about-face, Linfield went from being the second-worst performing NWC team beyond the arc in 2012-13 (25.6 percent) to the best in 2013-14 (35 percent). Much of the team’s success from long range can be attributed to freshman Quincey Gibson and sophomore Taylor Solomon. Both ranked among the top 3-point threats in the conference, Gibson second at 41 percent and Solomon sixth at 39.2 percent. Defensively, Linfield boasted the league’s third best defense in terms of overall field goal and 3-point shooting percentage allowed.
But with as much progress as the Wildcats made this year, the goal remains to turn the program into a tournament team. Only the top four squads in the league make the season-ending tournament, which this year produced three NCAA playoff teams.
To do that, Linfield must continue to improve in several areas of the game, but mainly free throw shooting and offensive rebounding. The Wildcats cashed in on a conference-low 57.7 percent of their opportunities at the stripe, and ranked near the bottom of the league in most rebounding statistics, including a -4.8 margin on the glass. Potera-Haskins specifically cited her team’s need to convert free throws under pressure and after drawing significant contact, and simply being more aggressive in going after balls that follow missed shots.
But overall, really the most significant factor limiting Linfield’s success this year was inexperience.
“You can’t explain how prepared you have to be to compete at this level, Potera-Haskins said.
The 2013-14 Wildcat roster featured just one senior, though her presence was certainly felt. Kaely Maltman, a four-year starter, departs as the program’s third all-time leading scorer and rebounder after averaging 15.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per night in her final season en route to second team all-NWC honors.
Linfield will undoubtedly miss this all-time great next year. But the good news about graduating just one senior, then, is the rest of the team returns.
Solomon, Katelyn Henson and Kaleigh Phillips constitute the veteran core, along with rising juniors Catie Mets and Jessica McMillan. Now with a full year of experience under their belts, players like Riley Graham – who “brought toughness and tenacity to the table on a daily basis” – and Annalise Beshears – who “made great strides to be an impact player and significantly help the team in the middle” – should assume greater roles in their sophomore seasons.
As Linfield continues to gain respect as a team to be reckoned with on a nightly basis, it should only be a matter of time before the team achieves greater success in the win column.
“It seems like we’re finally making the turn to change the culture of having athletes that really want to focus on the details of becoming a great basketball player,” Potera-Haskins said, “those that are really committed to the program, to each other, to the school and to really building a foundation.”