BY JEREMY HOECK
Amy Williams is familiar with what her team will face this weekend.
A squad with a new leader that’s playing hot down the stretch into a post-season tournament.
That’s the situation facing Williams and her University of South Dakota women’s basketball team, as it leaves today (Saturday) for a Sunday game at Northern Colorado in the second round of the WNIT.
Much like Williams experienced during her first season at USD in 2012-13 when the Coyotes won seven of their final nine games, Northern Colorado enters Sunday’s matchup having won 11 of its last 12 games.
“When you have a new coaching staff and a lot of upperclassmen, it’s prime for them to be able to make a run down the stretch,” Williams said Friday.
“It takes a little bit of time for a team to grasp the change, and she has them peaking right now.”
The Coyotes (26-7), conversely, are hoping they can peak in the WNIT Tournament, after losing in the Summit League championship game a week ago. South Dakota was able to refocus and beat Creighton in Thursday night’s first round game at the DakotaDome.
Northern Colorado (21-12), meanwhile, in the same position Williams was three seasons ago: Gelling late.
“That first year I came to USD, we had some really good seniors who embraced me,” Williams said. “They wrapped their arms around our staff and our system.”
It was just going to take some time for things to click. Which it did, as the Coyotes got all the way to the Summit League title game, falling three points short in Williams’ debut campaign.
“Several times we had conversations that were like, ‘Just be patient, we’re getting there,’” Williams said. “Then we were able to make a deep run and get to the championship game.”
That’s now the goal for the Coyotes, albeit in a different setting.
Following the win over Creighton, USD found out later that it would be traveling for the second round, rather than staying at home in Vermillion. The decision was credited to “huge travel issues,” according to the WNIT, but Williams was more concerned about her team not seeing its season end.
“All I could think about (Thursday) night is that we’re just happy to still be playing basketball,” she said. “We’re excited to be able to survive and advance, whoever and wherever.”
Now comes the task of beating a hot team on its home court.
Northern Colorado, which was once 10-11 on the season, has won 11 of 12, with the loss coming to Montana in the Big Sky Conference championship game.
The Bears, led by first-year head coach Kamie Ethridge (who brought in a whole new staff), are guided by two players. D’shara Strange averages 16.8 points and 9.0 rebounds a game, while Stephanie Lee averages 16.8 points and 4.4 rebounds.
Northern Colorado and USD have three common opponents: The Bears won at Omaha, lost at home to South Dakota State and went 2-1 against North Dakota. The Coyotes went 4-2 against those teams.
It’s not the NCAA Tournament, but the WNIT provides USD with a tangible goal.
“We’re looking at as a tremendous opportunity,” Williams said. “Everyone would agree, this tournament has a lot of quality teams competing.
“For us to be able to participating and in a position to make a run, it’s a good thing for our program.”
Sunday’s game in Greeley, Colorado, will tip off at 6 p.m. Central. The winner between the Coyotes and Bears will face either UCLA or San Diego in the third round next week.