The Wayne State women’s basketball team saw its season come to a close Feb. 26 in the first round of the NSIC/Sanford Health Tournament after a 75-62 loss to St. Cloud State in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The Wildcats finished with a 16-13 record for the 2019-2020 season.
WSC was the south division’s No. 7 seed entering the conference tournament. As of Feb. 8, the Wildcats sat in the No. 2 position in the division, but between a five-game losing streak and an ultra-competitive division, Wayne State found itself tied for sixth in the NSIC South at the end of the regular season, just two games back of the second seed, which was earned by Minnesota State-Mankato.
Southwest Minnesota State finished the regular season with one less loss (12) than the Wildcats, giving the Mustangs the No. 6 seed in the tournament and dropping WSC to No. 7.
“We have one of the best conferences in the country, if not the best,” head coach Brent Pollari said. “And we probably have the best division, too. (Despite dropping to seventh in the division) we were competitive in so many games and battled each night with the best teams in the conference.”
The seeding paired WSC with the north division’s No. 2 team, St. Cloud State. The two schools faced each other at the Halenbeck Hall on Feb. 7, with Wayne State taking a 79-58 victory.
Unfortunately for Wayne State, results did not repeat in the schools’ second matchup of the season.
The first quarter resulted in hot shooting from both teams, and Wayne State led 18-17 with 2:17 left in the opening frame after a 3-pointer from Haley Vesey. The Huskies responded with a 9-0 run on a trio of 3-pointers to end the quarter with a 26-18 advantage.
“We made a couple mistakes on a couple switches and left them open on a couple of them,” Pollari said. “They were hitting 3’s and it cost us early.”
SCSU built its lead to 11 (34-23) with 4:20 left in the half, but the Wildcats closed the second quarter on a 10-2 run to cut their halftime deficit to 36-33.
WSC shot 12-30 (40 percent) from the field in the first half, but also had 13 turnovers in the game’s opening 20 minutes.
“We wanted to slow the tempo down and instead of doing that, because we had players who really wanted to win, we had people trying a little too hard and I think that’s what resulted in us turning the ball over so much,” Pollari said.
The Huskies ripped off a 12-0 run over the first 2:37 of the second half to build their lead to 48-33. Both teams traded buckets through most of the rest of the third quarter, but the Wildcats got a pair of free throws from Halley Busse and a layup from Autumn Mlinar to cut the SCSU lead to 57-49 entering the fourth.
With the Wildcats trailing 60-51, Norling nailed a 3-ball to cut the WSC deficit to six, which was the Wildcats’ smallest deficit since halftime.
“We have a team that has fought all year,” Pollari said. “We’ve been in so many close games and our players know that they’re never out of it. They’re fighters and I’ve seen that out of them all season.”
Six points was as close as WSC would come the remainder of the game, as the Huskies outscored the Wildcats 15-8 over the final seven minutes to send Wayne State home with a 75-62 defeat.
Norling scored 18 points to lead WSC in scoring while Busse added 11 of her own. WSC shot just over 38 percent on the game and turned the ball over 22 times.
“There’s a reason they (St. Cloud) are ranked second in the conference,” Pollari said. “They’re just a really good team and they know how to make things difficult for their opponents.”
With the conclusion of the season, WSC’s Taylor Wangerin, Vesey and redshirt junor Evelyn Knox are set to graduate this spring. Pollari noted that because Vesey and Knox have another year of eligibility remaining, there’s a good possibility they will return to the team next season. Wangerin, however, has fulfilled her basketball eligibility.
“[Wangerin] has been a solid teammate and has always been there for us,” Pollari said. She has been a really good leader for our team and I’m grateful for the positive impact she has had on our program.”
It was announced last week that Norling earned First Team All-NSIC Honors while Busse was announced as a Second Team All-Conference performer. Norling averaged 19.9 points per game on the year while shooting 45.8 percent on the season. Busse averaged 14 ppg and shot 42.1 percent for the season.
“I’m proud of them both as people and basketball players,” Pollari said. “I’m happy for them because of the effort they put in. They showed up and improved and that’s a credit to them and the work they put in.”
Pollari is now 31-28 in two seasons as head coach of the Wildcats, and with the seven leading scorers from this year’s roster returning next year, the future appears bright for the program.
Pollari and his staff started recruiting future Wildcats immediately after the season concluded, and he noted that WSC has already signed a guard, forward and post for next season. The staff is also targeting 2021 prospects.
“We certainly want to improve our depth,” Pollari said. “We’re looking for tough players and good teammates to add to what is already a good culture.”