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The Knox Student

Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

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‘The whole team started to click, and we enjoyed playing basketball again’: How selflessness and solidarity turned around Knox’s season

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Knox women’s basketball went undefeated in conference play during the month of January. Buy-in from the players served as a catalyst for their surge in conference play.

The Knox women’s basketball team entered their California trip 2-7. Caltech entered the game with a 4-4 record; they currently are 10-12 (5-9 in conference). That game served as the turning point in the season for the Prairie Fire.

“I think our struggles at the beginning of the season, especially when we got to California, I think that was rock bottom for everybody,” senior guard Jessica Lee said.

The Prairie Fire lost to the Caltech Beavers by 10. Despite the frustration after the loss, it was the wake-up call that the team needed.

“We didn’t come and compete as we should,” Lee said. “After that loss, to hear your coach be disappointed in you, I think for everybody it was like, ‘If she believes in us; we have to believe in ourselves, too.’”

Coming back from winter break, the team lost a close, non-conference game against Luther College. Head coach Kira Mowen missed the game because of COVID protocols, but the team had started to gel.

“The main thing that changed was the energy from people,” said senior forward Catessa Duran. “The whole team started to click, and we enjoyed playing basketball again. As energy clicked, chemistry started to come, and we became more comfortable in the plays that we were running and the people we were running them next to.”

37 days passed between the Prairie Fire’s loss against Luther College and their next loss against Cornell College as they embarked on an eight-game winning streak, tying the school record.

For Knox, unpredictability plays a role in the team’s success this season. In previous years, the Prairie Fire offense revolved around one player, making it easier for teams to scout Knox and left the other players without true offensive responsibility.

“Having this offense gives us multiple scorers and makes us harder to defend,” Duran said. “You can scout for Jess and myself and a shooter, but that might not be the shooter that goes off the night. It might be [Sarino] Dacio, Haylee [Carpenter], or Saxon [Alvarez] hitting threes.”

Duran added, “It’s hard to stop a team that has three, four, five people scoring in double digits.”

During their eight-game winning streak, junior guard Haylee Carpenter was the lone player to lead the Prairie Fire in scoring back-to-back games. Upon becoming the new head coach, Mowen implemented a free-flowing, motion offense. It’s a style of play she hopes to maintain as long as she’s the coach.

“For me as a coach, the balanced scoring is helpful in that someone can’t scout us and say, ‘oh, we need to shutdown Tess, or Jess, or Haylee,’ because the minute you do that, I have five others that can step up and take the brunt of what they did,” first-year head coach Kira Mowen said. “It makes us harder to beat when we don’t have one player that is the sole focus for someone else’s scout.”

Knox ranks fourth out of nine teams in the Midwest Conference in scoring per game (62.8) and third in assists per game (12.7). The offensive approach empowers everyone so that on any given night, it might be their turn to step up offensively.

“Everyone on our team is capable of scoring,” Duran said. “I can give up a mid-range shot or a shot that isn’t as open, and I can pass it out, and they’re going to hit something.”

Mowen and assistant coach Travis Mintz have implemented new defenses. Despite the new offense, defense is the calling card. The various defenses leave opposing teams guessing as to what defense they’re going to play on a given possession. You can often see the Prairie Fire working through multiple defenses within a single game.

“It keeps opponents on their toes,” Mowen said when asked about the strategy of not staying static defensively. “Whether we play man or we start in a zone, we have the ability to use five or six defenses at any given time. The thing I like to do is to make the other sideline question what is going on or what we’re about to do.”

Knox traditionally employed a 2-3 zone defense for the entire game under the previous regime. The 2-3 left them susceptible to good three-point shooting teams, which ultimately played a huge factor in their undoing in the 2019-2020 season against Ripon College to end the regular season and during the Midwest Conference Tournament. (Ripon College’s Alison Leslie made 13s between both games.)

The most notable shift has come in the way of a press. Mowen and Mintz installed a press that plays to the strengths of forwards like Duran and junior forward Kristin Herndon, who are both dual-sport, long-limbed athletes.

“Even if we don’t get a lot of steals out of it, making them frantic in the backcourt makes them frantic in the frontcourt, and I don’t think a lot of teams take advantage of that,” Duran said. “Us pressing gives us an advantage because it’s causing people to only have 20 seconds in the frontcourt, and then you have to set up an offense. Not only do you have to get through the press, then you have to figure out what we’re running. We’ve had more ten-second calls this year than I have in the last couple of years combined.”

Lee is proud of her team’s defensive performance this season and the freedom they’re allowed.

“We’ve shut teams down,” Lee said. “Some of these teams score in the high 70s, and we contain them to the 50-60 point range. “It’s fun to have some change on defense based on the team instead of playing the same defense for every team.”

Knox is currently third in the conference in points allowed (59.2), first in blocked shots (4.00 per game), and first in opponent field goal percentage (34.2 percent).

The Prairie Fire followed up their eight-game winning streak with a two-game losing streak that served as an opportunity to regroup.

“Showing up to Cornell and getting blasted, that was not fun,” Duran said. “Anybody needs to get their butts knocked down a bit. Coach Mowen put up a really good quote on the board that said, ‘When life kicks you, let it kick you forward.’”

The Prairie Fire bounced back with victories over Beloit College and Illinois College. The lumps they took early in the season prepared them for the grind that the Midwest Conference tournament brings, which is the ultimate goal.

“We’ve clinched a spot for third in the conference,” Duran said. “We get along and we have fun. I enjoy that we show up, and we know that this is a business deal. Once we get business done, then we can have fun.”

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