Oct. 12, 2007
DeKALB, Ill.-The Northern Illinois University women's basketball embarks on its quest for the Mid-American Conference championship when it opens up practice Saturday.
The NIU is coming off one of its most successful seasons in recent memory. Last season, the Huskies finished 19-12, posting their best record since the 1993-94 season (24-6) and their most wins since 2001-02 (17-12). It was also the Huskies' first winning season since 2001-02. NIU capped off 2006-07 advancing to the semifinals of the MAC Tournament for the first time since 2002. Stephanie Raymond also became the first Huskie drafted by the WNBA, going 20th overall to the Chicago Sky.
This year's squad looks to build on the success of last season and compete for a MAC championship. They'll do it with a dramatically different look. The Huskies welcome six newcomers to the pack.
"I feel like we almost have, for the most part, a whole new team with six newcomers," head coach Carol Owens said. "Shari' Welton and Aileen Rossouw had to sit out last year because of their transfer status. Ebony Ellis, who red shirted last year, will be eligible this year, and we have three new freshmen. We're going to have a different look and that makes me excited. I feel like we'll do a lot of different things. I don't think we'll be as predictable."
Northern Illinois has six players returning from last season's team. Leading the way are guard Jessie Wilcox and forward Whitney Lowe. Wilcox started all 31 games for the Huskies last season averaging 9.8 points a game. She had a career-high 24 points against Miami (OH), posted her first career double-double against Toledo, scoring 13 points and grabbing a 11 rebounds, and led the Huskies in scoring three times.
"I think Jessie understands her role this year, and I think she's excited about it as well," Owens said. "She's already shown her leadership in the summer. We've had all of our players here this summer. I think they know what Jessie's capable of doing and how you want your point guard to be that leader you need."
Lowe averaged 8.4 points a game and hauled in 4.9 rebounds a game while essentially playing two positions. A guard by trade, Lowe was asked to make the transition to a post position last season. She handled the move very well. She was named to the all-tournament team of the Mildred and Roger L. White Invitational after scoring 15 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the 70-54 win over Northwestern. She had a career-high 20-point performance in the Huskies 97-67 victory over Illinois State and posted a double-double at DePaul, scoring 12 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
"Whitney played two positions last year," she said. "I commend her for that because it's difficult going from a guard to a post and having to be an undersized post trying to defend taller post players, then being on the wing being a big guard defending quicker guards. She handled it well.
"Ultimately Whitney will do whatever it takes to make our team successful. She's deadly from the three-point line, she can rebound and she can do a lot of little things. We hope she continues in her growth this year. As a senior, this is her year."
Becky Smith made great strides her sophomore season. She started the season as a bench player, but her hard work throughout the season earned her a spot in the starting line up, making her first career start at Buffalo (Jan. 27). Starting the last 13 games, Smith averaged 4.2 points and 3.9 boards a game and posted a career-high 12 points at Western Michigan. Smith also set a mark that will be tough to beat, shooting a MAC Tournament record 94 percent from the floor for the tourney.
"Becky, as always, is our hardest worker, committed to the program and what we do," she said. "I see her still being an integral part in what we want to do."
Like Lowe, red-shirt junior Tara Michels also played a dual role for the Huskies last year. She played both point guard and shooting guard coming off the bench. Out with a knee injury her sophomore season, Michels returned to the floor to contribute 2.1 points a game, scoring a season-high 11 points at Ohio. A three-point threat, she hit some big threes in several games to spark Huskie victories.
"Tara, last year, came back strong after that knee injury that sidelined her most of her sophomore year," she said. "This year I think that, because it's her senior year, she wants to do all she can to contribute."
The Huskies had two freshman that played big roles in 2006-07. Sidelined with a stress fracture for much of last season, Terriel Cannon made it through the summer injury free and is ready to contribute this season.
"Terriel has a balanced attack," she said. "She can get to the basket. She can shoot from the outside. I think she can help us in a lot of different ways. Also, as a guard, she can rebound really well. That's good when you can get your perimeter people to mix it up inside."
Kylie York had an excellent freshman year. Averaging 5.6 points a game, she is deadly from beyond the three-point arc. She shot 38 percent from three-point territory, going 48-126 from beyond the three-point line, while going a perfect 12-12 from the free throw line. She scored a season-high 18 points at Kent State, going 5-8 from three-point land. All five of her made field goals were three-pointers.
"Kylie is probably one of the most pure shooters I've seen in a long time," she said. "What I like about Kylie is her court savvy. She's very smart, can pass the ball and she can read defenses. She does a lot of the little things that you sometimes just can't teach. You've just got to have the instincts for."
With six new faces on the squad, programs are going to come in handy for the first few games this season. But with the talent each possess, fans will get to know them pretty quick. Three of the new Huskies, were on the team last season, but Rossouw and Welton sat out last season because of their transfer status, while Ellis was red-shirted last year. While all three were unable to take the court for the Huskies last season, they practiced with the team all last year and are ready to contribute on game days.
Owens and her staff recruited three championship-caliber freshmen for this season. Mauvolyene Adams of Bolingbrook, Ill, Bianca Brown of Detroit, Mich. and Charmaine Bell of Des Moines, Iowa bring a wealth of talent to this year's team. All three have played for state championship teams in high school and are looking to help the Huskies win a MAC Championship and beyond.
As always, the Huskies goal is win the MAC Tournament and earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Owens knows that is not an easy task.
"I think people see Bowling Green and say they've lost a lot, but Curt Miller does a great job," she said. "With what he does with the team, they'll still be strong. Ball State will be very good. Most everybody is returning. Ohio will be good. They've always had some young talent and I think now they've become upper classmen so they will be a more experienced team than before. Kent State will always be that threat. I think that's what makes the MAC very good and why we deserve more than one team into the NCAA tournament and the NIT. Our RPI has improved."
For the Huskies to win the MAC, they will have to navigate through another tough schedule.
A holiday tournament in Cancun, Mexico highlights the Northern Illinois University women's basketball schedule for 2007-08.
"When we had an opportunity to get in on the Cancun trip, we asked other teams that had participated in it," she said. "Bowling Green and Western Michigan had been in the tournament, they spoke very highly of it. They said it was very competitive. I thought this would be the year to do it."
The Huskies will travel Mexico during the week of Thanksgiving to participate in the Carribean Challenge. NIU will open the Tourney against Michigan State of the Big Ten before taking on Conference USA's Tulane Thanksgiving Day.
The Huskies are home for two of their first three games. NIU opens the season at home for the third-straight year when it plays host to Bradley Nov. 9. After heading to Chicago to take on Chicago State, the Huskies face off against Western Illinois at the Convo before heading south. Last year, the Huskies were 3-0 against their first three opponents of 2007-08.
The Cancun trip marks the beginning of a six-game road trip for the Huskies. When the Huskies return to the States, NIU travels to UIC and UW-Green Bay to close out the month of November. The Huskies conclude their road odyssey at the Hawkeye Challenge Dec. 8-9. The Huskies will face the Hawkeyes to open the tournament and will face either Wyoming or St. Joseph's in the second game.
The Huskies return to the Convocation Center Dec. 17 to take on rival DePaul and Northern Iowa Dec. 21. The Blue Demons edged out the Huskies 71-68 in their meeting last season at DePaul. The Huskies close out 2007 with trips to IUPUI Dec. 28 and Illinois State Dec. 31. The Huskies split with both teams last season.
"We have a lot of Illinois teams on our schedule," she said. "I don't feel we have to go too far to play really good competition. We're in the Hawkeye Challenge. The reputation of the Iowa tournament is very good. I thought it made sense."
Like last season, the Huskies open up Mid-American Conference play at Eastern Michigan. The first home MAC contest is Jan. 12 when NIU plays host to Ball State followed by Central Michigan Jan. 15. The Huskies play the MAC East Jan. 26-Feb. 16, including a Super Bowl Sunday match up with Akron Feb. 3.
The Huskies are on the road for three of their last five games. The Huskies close out the home portion of their schedule Feb. 27-Mar. 1 against Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan and wrap up the regular season Mar. 5 at Ball State.