All season long, the Three Rivers women’s basketball team has exceeded expectations by being greater than the sum of its parts.
Six freshmen arrived to join three sophomores and a redshirt freshman. It was uncertain how they would mesh, but now, the Lady Raiders are ranked No. 22 in the country and one win away from the program’s first appearance in the national tournament since 2004.
Despite some injury troubles along the way, which forced the team to dress eight players at times, Three Rivers has rattled off 19 wins in a row and won its first Region XVI Tournament championship in 15 years. Of its 26 wins, 21 of them have come by double figures.
“I feel like we were all pieces of the puzzle,” An’Nyah Pettus said. “We all just connected and became that whole puzzle.”
That connection and the wins that have followed comes from the balance and depth of the roster. If one player isn’t feeling it, another steps in to fill that void. While the wins kept piling up, the team got closer throughout the season, helping its chemistry on the court.
“We all got close to one another,” Deanay Watson said. “That just helped out more while being on the court because we got to know each other better and we became a family.”
One result of that closeness is a season in which five players have averaged double figures in points for the year, while the team averages the third-most assists in the country at 20 per game. Another is Hailee Erickson and Jordan Little getting recognized as First Team All-Region members, and Katelyn South and J’Kayla Fowler earning Second Team honors. Meanwhile, Watson earned Region XVI Freshman of the Year, and coach Jeff Walk was named the region’s Coach of the Year.
“It’s never one person’s game,” South said. “Everybody always contributes in some way. Like some person will be hot one game and then another person will get hot the next game, and it’s hard to guard.”
Combine all of those elements and you get a team that’s 26-3 and hasn’t lost since Nov. 30. You also get a team that is preparing to face Iowa Western in Friday’s District K playoff with a trip to Lubbock, Texas, and a spot in the NJCAA Tournament on the line.
“We all have put in the work, so now it’s time to produce out on the court,” Kim Shaw said.
The team has faced big-game environments several times this season, though. One of its three losses came against current No. 1 Wabash Valley by 21 points. At 29-0, Wabash Valley has played in seven games all year that have been decided by 21 points or fewer.
That game was the fifth of the season for the Lady Raiders, back when they were still figuring out how to play together and maximize each other’s potential.
“With everybody being new and it being our first time playing together, I knew there’d be a little rough patch at the beginning,” Erickson said. “But with everybody coming in, everybody wanting to put the same work effort in, everybody wanting to win, I knew it’d be a good group to play with.”
Since then, Three Rivers has played in several other big games. Its battles with Mineral Area decided who would earn the No. 1 seed in the Region XVI Tournament. On both occasions, the Lady Raiders stared a big third-quarter run in the face and responded with fourth-quarter poise to earn huge wins.
In the region tournament, Moberly Area stepped on the court and hit almost everything it tossed up on the way to a 15-point, first-quarter lead. Again, the Lady Raiders responded with the poise of a veteran team and managed to grind out a win to keep their season alive. Each time they needed a bucket, someone different stepped up.
“It feels good. I mean, it’s nice to know everybody on your team contributes, so you don’t have to have all the pressure on your back,” Watson said.
Watson scored big basket after big basket to keep Moberly Area from pulling away. After not missing a shot in her second-half warmups, Little scored 16 points in the second half and drilled a 3 to put the Lady Raiders up for the rest of the game. Erickson has been steady all season as the team’s leading scorer at 13.8 points per game. Hannah Thurmon found her offense late in the season to give the team another boost, producing her two best games in the region tournament.
“Any given time, somebody could get hot and go off and have their best game, and it’s not like set who it’s going to be. You never know, it could be anybody on the team,” South said.
Every player has spent the season stepping up when the team needs a little extra production. Fowler missed four games with an ankle injury and has logged 17 total minutes in her two games since returning to the lineup, but she’s been in no hurry to rush her recovery process. She left behind 10 points per game, and despite her athleticism being missed on the court, she knows her teammates will pick up her slack until she’s 100 percent again.
“It’s been good. When I’m struggling, I know that they’ll have my back and I can just work as hard as I can,” Fowler said.
Pettus has missed 15 games this season, 12 early in the season with a wrist injury and the last three with a knee injury. When she was healthy, she was posting double-doubles with a physical presence inside. Still, the wins have kept coming even when adversity strikes.
“You just still have to fight hard, play hard and get after it,” Watson said.
Added Shaw, “I think the subbing rotation was off, which took a little bit to get used to, but I don’t know, J’Kayla came back in for the Moberly game (in the region championship), which really helped us. I thought she had a really good game, so it’s exciting when they do come back on.”
Another win puts the Lady Raiders’ winning streak at 20 games, but they have to get past a solid Iowa Western squad first.
In the regular season, Iowa Western is 5-0 against Region XVI teams. The Reivers beat Mineral Area twice, Jefferson College, Moberly Area and State Fair once each. They started the season ranked No. 19 in the Division I poll, but their eight losses this year have knocked them out of the top 25. Nonetheless, Iowa Western built a 14-game winning streak that was snapped Feb. 20 by Western Nebraska.
The Reivers have a veteran group with six sophomores on the roster. Sophomore forward Kiars Dallmann leads the bunch at 13.8 points per game while shooting 61.9 percent from the field for the year, the fourth-best shooting percentage in the country.
Redshirt freshman Aubriana Noti shoots 54 percent from the field, scoring 11 points per game, and sophomore De’Ayra Davis averages 10 points per game to round out the three double-figure scorers for the Reivers. Iowa Western plays a gritty style. It boasts a plus-11 rebounding margin, which is 19th in Division I, and allows 57.7 points per game, good for 29th in the country.
Friday’s game is set to start at 7 p.m. in the Libla Family Sports Complex.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic