With a 15-game winning streak under its belt, the No. 24 Lady Raiders are heading to Park Hills to take on Mineral Area in its biggest game of the season so far.
Mineral Area is in the midst of its own winning streak. The Cardinals enter Saturday’s Region XVI matchup winners of seven straight games and sit a game and a half back of Three Rivers for the top spot in the region in what is essentially a two-team race for the top spot. The Cardinals are also receiving votes in the latest NJCAA Division I Top 25 poll.
The Lady Raiders are a perfect 10-0 away from home and 9-0 in true road games, while Mineral Area holds a 9-1 home record. Its only loss came at the hands of Iowa Western by three points.
With all of that being said, Saturday is sure to be a fight.
“We go to Mineral (Saturday), and that will be an absolute war,” Three Rivers coach Jeff Walk said after Three Rivers’ victory over Jefferson College last Saturday. “That’s going to decide who’s first seed in the region tournament.”
Three Rivers owns a 74-67 home win over Mineral Area from over a month ago. It was the closest win the Lady Raiders have had all year.
The good news for Three Rivers is it didn’t have to play a weekday game for the first time since it had three weeks off in December, having two regular season games remaining, while Mineral Area will be playing its third game in eight days.
“It gives us a chance to kind of rest and heal and get back to normal just a little bit and focus in on two big region games, where everybody else in the region is playing five or six games in 12 days. We’ve got two. I think that helps us.”
The bad news is J’Kayla Fowler, one of Three Rivers’ five players averaging double figures, will miss her third straight game after twisting both ankles in a Feb. 2 win over State Fair. She’s still on crutches and in a walking boot while her injury heals.
The Lady Raiders have some depth at her position, though. They can look to An’Nyah Pettus to fill some of the void she leaves behind. Although maybe not as fast as Fowler, Pettus is a glass eater with a physical presence in the paint. Since making her debut in the lineup in late December, Pettus has averaged 8.7 points per game and grabbed a shade under eight rebounds a night while tallying three double-doubles. Her season-high in rebounds is 14, while she’s scored as many as 24 points this season.
“She just goes and gets it,” Walk said. “Lord have mercy, just tickled to death to watch her go in there and clean the glass and dominate the boards. She brings something else to the table, the strength and physicality. She can get down there and muscle up with somebody, a little bit different than what J’Kayla can do.”
Mineral Area will likely continue to look toward Holly Forbes for production. Forbes averages 15 points per game and 9.7 rebounds while shooting nearly 59 percent from the field for the year. Mason McWilliams averages 11.5 points per game, and Natalia Lalic scores 12.1 points on average to make up the three Cardinals with double figure averages.
The Lady Raiders like to share the wealth and distribute the ball. In their last game against Jefferson, they recorded 27 assists, their fifth-highest mark of the season and seven more than their average of 20.
“The kids know that they’re going to get the ball when they’re open,” Walk said. “There’s not any selfish shots being taken. … Sometimes we overpass, and we’ve gotten better at that through the year, but as good as they share the basketball, it just makes you so dang hard to guard.”
With a win, Three Rivers will lock up the top seed in the region tournament. Saturday’s game will tip off at 5 p.m.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic