Women’s Basketball gets set to defend national title

With one exhibition game in the books and another just around the corner, the No. 1 nationally ranked Northern Kentucky University women’s basketball program is only one Division I opponent away from regular season play.

The Norse, who crossed the Ohio River and recorded a 56-52 victory over the University of Cincinnati, on Nov. 1, in their first-of-two preseason games against Division I schools, will next host NCAA Big East conference power Louisville before beginning defense of their Division II national championship.

The match-up, which is part of a double header with the men’s teams of both schools, is scheduled to 5:30 PM on Nov. 7 – with the latter half of the double-header special following-and will have several meanings to Norse basketball fans.

It will serve as not only the first actual game played in the new Bank of Kentucky Center but will also be the first time the Norse women will play in front of a home crowd since their victory over SIEU in the first round Great Lakes Valley Conference tournament on March 4.

Conceivably most importantly though, the Louisville game will mark the last time this year that the Norse will play a game that doesn’t officially mean something.

After the final seconds of the second half clock tick off the arena’s new $1.6 million scoreboard and Head Coach Jeff Walz and his Cardinals have made their southbound trip down Interstate-71, the Norse will begin pursuing that of which all champions seek – a repeat.

The route a second national title in as many years will begin with NKU’s regular-season opener on Nov. 20, when Wayne State (Mich.) comes to town. The Norse will also then play host to Mercyhurst (PA) on Nov. 24, before traveling to play Indianapolis on Dec. 12 in the only inter-conference game scheduled before the new year.

NKU defeated both, Wayne State and Mercyhurst, by at least 15-point margins (with scores of 78-60 and 83-67 respectively) when the teams last crossed path; the Norse’s last meeting with Indianapolis however was much closer.

The GLVC tournament set the stage for the last NKU/Indianapolis meeting in which the then-fourth-seeded Norse, desperate for a win for a chance at a berth into the NCAA Division II Elite Eight, rallied back from a 15-point deficit to post a final score of 55-54, defeating the Greyhounds for the eighth consecutive time.

Furthermore, the Norse will enter the 2008-2009 season exactly where they left off last season- on the top, with a No. 1 national ranking in the Division II preseason bulletin poll, and as a heavy favorite to win the GLVC East Division, collecting 36 total points and six first-place votes.

However, as reported by the Northern Kentucky University Sports Information Department, to NKU Head Coach Nancy Winstel-“polls mean nothing.”

Perhaps the two-time national champion coach’s – Winstel also led NKU to a Division II national championship title in 2000 – remark is a direct result of modesty, but regardless it’s hard to hold the comment against her considering how her team’s most recent championship run began.

After all, the group of Norse women that finished the regular season fourth in their conference and unranked nationally in the final regular-season poll just happens to be the same group that cut down the final net in Kearney, Neb. and hung up the universities second banner when they got home.

This season, however, the Norse will have to try for another title without the help of standout players Angela Healy and Nicole Chiodi, both of which undeniable played a significant part in NKU’s championship run before graduating in May 2008.

Healy, who appears on several all-time career leaders list at NKU- seventh in rebounds (805), ninth in field goal percentage (.501), and sixth in free-throw percentage (.780)- was the leading scorer in 14 games last season for the Norse and led the team in average points (14.1) and rebounds (9.3) per game. Chiodi-who appears as ninth on NKU all-time career leaders list for total assists with 355-led the Norse in steals last season (58) and contributed 8.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.

Conversely, the Norse will be welcoming back many familiar faces with three starters and seven letterwinners, in total, returning from the championship team, including senior post-player Cassie Brannen, who averaged 13.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Division II Great Lakes Region Tournament in the 2007-2008 season; senior guard Jessie Slack, who averaged 13.3 ppg and contributed 55 steals last season and fellow senior guards Danyelle Echoles (6.9 ppg), Karen Brakman (5.1 ppg).

NKU will also see the return of junior guard Rachel Lantry, sophomore point guard Diondra Holliday and sophomore Kendra Caldwell, who will all add valuable big-game experience to the roster.

The Norse roster will also feature Morehead University transfer student Brandi Rayburn, who averaged 7.6 ppg and knocked down 84-percent of her free-throw attempts last season, and a strong recruiting class of four freshmen, including Stephanie Hodges, an ex-stand-out player at Conner High School who averaged 14.1 points and 10.2 rebounds a game for the Cougars.

Lantry says that while it can often be hard on a team to bring in so many additions at once, she believes that her team’s new additions are going to be a “big help this season.”

“I think we have had real strong additions,” she said. “Everyone brings something different and we all work well with each other. Our new additions have been picking up things real quickly.”

She added that although the team is coming off a championship season, they will not ease this year.

“It was nice winning the national championship last year but this is a whole different season with different girls,” she said. “Everyone has stayed grounded and like I said it’s a whole different year and anything can happen.”