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Women hope to pick up where they ended last season

NKU+guard+Rianna+Gayheart+%285%29+and+her+teammates+prepare+to+open+the+2015-16+basketball+season+Friday+at+Miami+University.
NKU guard Rianna Gayheart (5) and her teammates prepare to open the 2015-16 basketball season Friday at Miami University.

NKU guard Rianna Gayheart (5) and her teammates prepare to open the 2015-16 basketball season Friday at Miami University.

Kody Kahle

Kody Kahle

NKU guard Rianna Gayheart (5) and her teammates prepare to open the 2015-16 basketball season Friday at Miami University.

Matt Sexton, Sports Editor

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The women’s basketball team hopes a strong finish to the 2014-15 season, as well as an offseason trip, will propel the Norse to success in the new Horizon League.

Dawn Plitzuweit’s squad won its final three regular-season games last season, then won its first two Atlantic Sun tournament games before falling in the final 60-43 to Florida Gulf Coast.

With this season being the final year of ineligibility to the NCAA tournament, the Norse finished last season with a bid to the Women’s Basketball Invitational. The season ended with an 81-79 loss to Marshall.

Plitzuweit, now in her fourth season with the Norse, hopes the new conference will provide some stability to a team that has experienced several changes over the past few years.

“Our junior and senior class have been through numerous transitions and numerous changes,” Plitzuweit said. “The fun [is] playing new competition, and there is always a challenge with that. For our fans to be able to see more of our action and come watch it locally rather than have to watch it online is something we look forward to.”

Much of the preseason excitement has surrounded the move to the Horizon League. Plitzuweit hopes the move will help her program both on the floor and in the stands.

“The hype going into the Horizon League certainly presents us with many challenges,” Plitzuweit said. “We don’t know the competition at this point in time. The excitement level it’s garnered among the media, among our fans, among our recruiting base really has been incredible. We’re excited to see what happens and where we go with it.”

Toughness and togetherness

A seven-day trip to Costa Rica provided the team the opportunity to bond on and off the court.

“We played three games and had numerous team building activities that went along with that,” Plitzuweit said. “For us, with the timing of a transition into a new conference, it couldn’t have been better for us. Our young ladies had, I believe, eight days of practices prior to the trip, then the seven days being together. It really was outstanding.”

The building formerly known as the Bank of Kentucky Center might as well had been renamed the Toughness Arena, considering it is a cornerstone of both the men’s and women’s basketball programs.

As her counterpart John Brannen did during NKU’s media day, Plitzuweit talked at length about the fortitude she expected out of her team. She believes the Costa Rica trip helped build its strength.

“We talk about two words in our program a great deal – toughness and togetherness,” Plitzuweit said. “We played three games in about a 72-hour span. We played a very, very physical style of basketball. We built some toughness while we were there, but we also had a great time building our togetherness.”

Like all of NKU’s athletic programs, Plitzuweit and her staff have worked to craft their roster over the last four years to adjust to the transition to Division I. She believes the two cornerstones of her program can help them continue to succeed in that transition.

“In the first few years in Division I, we have not been the more athletic team on the court, but we still have to find a way to be successful,” Plitzuweit said. “For us, that’s come through different toughness categories. The togetherness of sharing the basketball – try  to take advantage of what teams are giving us rather than relying on one kid to be the kid for us.”

Carryover from a strong finish

Plitzuweit said her team didn’t handle adversity well during the early portion of last season. She saw her team’s resolve strengthen throughout the season.

“Our players really grew last year during the course of the season,” Plitzuweit said. “Early in the year, we really struggled to battle through adversity. I wouldn’t say that we have one or two leaders on the team; we have a lot of different leaders. We have 13 kids that all have great leadership capabilities.”

The increase in leadership can be seen, and heard, during practices during the preseason.

“During the course of our practice, you’ll hear the sophomores saying things that you expect seniors to say,” Plitzuweit said. “You’ll hear seniors saying what you would expect coaches to say. It’s really kind of fun. I can sit down and get out of the way. So they’re doing a great job.”

She hopes winning five of its last seven games last season, in addition to three exhibition games in Costa Rica, will have a carryover effect on her team.

“Our young ladies have learned a great deal going through all these transitions during the course of their tenure here,” Plitzuweit said. “And they’ll continue to be better basketball players because of it and better young ladies because of it.”

Excited to play new competition

Christine Roush was the Norse’s second-leading scorer in 2014-15. She averaged 12.5 points per game. There may be few in or out of the program more excited to join the Horizon League.

“I’ve always loved playing new, different teams,” Roush said. “The non-conference part of the season has always been my favorite part of our season. Being able to transition into this new conference, I’m excited to play all these different teams.”

Roush isn’t the only player thrilled with the new league, NKU’s sixth-leading scorer from a year ago, Rianna Gayheart also hopes the improved travel will help increase support for the program.

“I think it’s huge for our fan base playing a lot closer teams now,” Gayheart said. “We’re not going to Florida twice a year. To be able to carry our fans to games with us, more away games especially, is going to be awesome to see that develop and our fan base really grow because of that.”

One of the biggest challenges for the team is to replace its top scorer, Melody Doss, and third-leading scorer, Kaitlyn Gerrety. Both were lost to graduation.

“I feel like our biggest challenge is to find top scorers for our team,” Roush said. “Once games roll around, we’re really going to see who is going to step up this year who’s going to score and not defer when their time comes.”

Roush, an Atlantic Sun second-team player a year ago, believes the makeup of the team this season, compared to the beginning of last season, has allowed the group to improve.

“From last year, we had six new girls, so that was a big challenge in of itself,” Roush said. “This year we have two freshmen and a lot of returners, so it’s great to see how we built from last season and how well we’re coming into this season and how we’ve grown as a team.”

Among the returners for the Norse is Kelley Wiegman, who averaged 6 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, and Kasey Uetrecht, who shot 45 percent from the floor last season.

The Horizon League: a disciplined league

Plitzuweit said the gap between the Atlantic Sun and the Horizon League had closed over the past few years. The two conferences have similar national rankings.

“When we started in the Atlantic Sun, the Atlantic Sun was not in the top and the Horizon League was,” Plitzuweit said. “Over the course of the last three years, the ASun is ranked as high as 11th from an RPI standpoint and the Horizon League was 12th. They are very comparable in level of competition.”

Much has been made about the relative geographic position of Northern Kentucky in relation to its new and old conferences. Plitzuweit said the true differences between the conferences are small.

“We went from being the northernmost team in a southern conference with a lot of great athletes, so we had to find a way to keep those great athletes off the glass, to a league that is known to be a basketball league,” Plitzuweit said. “It carries a lot of great attention from a basketball standpoint. Teams are very athletic but they’re also incredibly disciplined.”

As for what that means as far as NKU’s record when the season ends, only time will tell. Plitzuweit is more concerned about how her team competes in practice and in games.

That doesn’t mean her team isn’t driven to be great.

“Our kids are very hungry,” Plitzuweit said. “You can see in the way that they practice. You can see it in the way they respond once they’re challenged. Instead of putting their tail between their legs, they come out and they’re attacking. I can guarantee with this group, they’re going to battle and claw and find a way to do the best that they can do.”

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Women hope to pick up where they ended last season