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Women to bring balance to regional tourney

Posted by: NWC Athletics — February 27, 2014
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By DANTE GEOFFREY Tribune Sports Writer Courtesy of the Powell Tribune

In the three weeks since starting point guard Andressa Augusto was lost to a season-ending injury, the Northwest Trappers women’s basketball team has been understandably inconsistent. 

For the Trappers to make a run in the Region IX Tournament (beginning Saturday in Rock Springs) the team will have to find its center and receive contributions from its entire rotation. 

Northwest (18-12 overall, 9-7 in the North) alternated three losses with two wins without Augusto and finished fourth in the North Sub- Region. The Trappers will be the “home team” in their first-round matchup with Northeastern Junior at 1 p.m. Sunday.

The NWC women are the on-paper favorites against Northeastern (13-14, 6-6 in the South), but in the parity-prevalent Region IX, any team can have the other’s number on any given day. 

“There’s a lot of very good teams at the tournament,” said NWC head coach Janis Beal. “Just with our North teams, everybody’s beaten everybody. The South is kind of the same thing. Everybody’s pretty close.” 

To get the needed separation between themselves and their opponents, the Trappers will have to come together as one and fill the void left by the player who was expected to lead them to and through the tournament. 

Sophomore Leanne Winterholler and freshman Dana Bjorhus are prime candidates to ignite the offense. Winterholler’s ability to go off from the 3-point line, and Bjorhus’ all-around game have made them two of only three Trappers to average more than 10 points per game. 

Bjorhus’ 5.7 rebounds per game is also good for third on the team. Sophomore Imari Simpson, who is Northwest’s leading scorer at 12.5 points per game, provides a similar offensive threat in a dissimilar way. 

Simpson doesn’t need many touches to get her points. Instead, she often cleans up the messes made by others on the offensive glass. And when given the opportunity she’s not hesitant to make a move and use her imposing figure to score from the post. Simpson shoots a team-high 53.2 percent from the floor and is the only Trapper to average more than 10 minutes a game and make more than half of her shots. 

“I think we’re going to have to have them be at their best,” Beal said of her top performers. “We’re going to need kids that we’ve relied on to step up and make some big plays.” 

Northwest hasn’t had to rely on freshman point guard Mandee Christensen for long, but there may be no player the Trappers rely on at regionals. 

Christensen overcame initial trouble with turnovers to run the offense at an efficient, controlled clip — highlighted by her 10-point, 10-assist performance in a 75-61 win over Little Big Horn on Feb. 19. 

Christensen averaged 3.7 turnovers and 19.7 minutes per game through her first 24 games with the Trappers. She’s averaged only three turnovers over 27.3 minutes per game from Feb. 1 on. 

“She’s starting to learn the role without (Augusto) there and making better decisions,” Beal said. 

Christensen played 23 minutes in Northwest’s first game without Augusto, but her playing time has gone up steadily since then, peaking at 32 and then 35 minutes in the Trappers’ final two regular season games. 

As a team, Northwest averaged 72 points per game this season, and though that fell to 69 ppg after Augusto’s injury, the Trappers scored 76 points against Western Wyoming, which boasts the North’s third-stingiest defense (64.7 points allowed per game). 

Northwest did not play Northeastern this season and Beal was still in the process of scouting film when she gave the Tribune a phone interview Tuesday morning. 

The coach said the Plainswomen mirror Northwest in a lot of ways. They don’t have one dominant player, but a few that can score the ball, both inside and out. 

Guard Brooke Blair (14.3 ppg) and forward Meg Pritchard (13.3), both freshmen, are the only Northeastern players to average more than nine points per contest, and as far as Beal can tell, the Plainswomen go as their young duo go. 

Beal said she thinks that though Northeastern might have a height advantage, Simpson should be in position to play well. 

“As far as inside presence I feel like Imari and Hatti (Snyder) really give us good strength inside,” the coach said. 

Snyder, a freshman, is Northwest’s leading rebounder and figures to be a key player when Simpson sits.

“She leads our team in rebounding,” Beal said. “Hatti is just a different player but definitely has strengths that help us.” 

If the Trappers win on Sunday they would meet the winner of Western Nebraska vs. Gillette at 1 p.m. Monday in the quarterfinals. The semifinals are scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday and the championship game is at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Northwest is looking to improve on last season’s semifinal appearance, which was the Trappers’ best showing in Beal’s five years as head coach. It’s something this year’s sophomores haven’t forgotten. 

“They have something to prove,” Beal said. “I think they’ve bought in and want to do well for each other.”

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