Lady Bearcats leave lean years behind
BOLIVAR—The women’s basketball program at Southwest Baptist University is winning again, and longtime coach Jim Middleton is noticing that the big crowds that the Lady Bearcats used to routinely draw about a decade ago are starting to return.
“The more you win, the more they’re going to come back,” he said.
For most of the season, the Lady Bearcats have managed to match the men’s team victory for victory. Their record as of Feb. 15 was 17-5, which puts them in position to do something no other team in Middleton’s 14-year tenure has ever done—establish a school record for wins.
Four of Middleton’s teams have topped out at 21 victories, so the magic number for this squad would be five more wins. A strong run in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) Postseason Tournament March 6-9 at Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City, would be more evidence that the Lady Bearcats, unranked nationally most of the season, are all the way back from several down years to where they once again deserve to be counted among the elite in NCAA Division II women’s basketball.
Middleton said he has never talked to his players about their lack of national recognition this year. He is philosophical to where he says it is difficult, if not impossible, to rank the teams due to a lack of media exposure and limited voter awareness of what teams from one part of the country are doing when you live clear across the nation. His approach is quite simple.
“Just keep winning,” he tells the team. “It’ll take care of itself.”
The Lady Bearcats know that if they keep on doing well in the MIAA, they will certainly be a factor in the NCAA Division II South Central Regionals March 14-17 with a chance to advance to nationals March 26-29 at Kearney, Neb.
“We set a goal to be in the top four (in the MIAA), and if you’re in the top four, you feel pretty good about making the national tournament,” Middleton said. “When you’re preseason picked eighth, and you’ve had a few lean years, you want to be realistic with your team at that point.”
Leading the Lady Bearcats is Erika Souza, a 5-foot-6 senior guard from Brazil who averages about 20 points (third in the league) and 5 assists (first in the league) a game. Middleton is proud of how his team is leading the MIAA in assist/turnover ratio (1.26) and scoring (around 80 points per game), and he likes the fact that Souza is both talented and unselfish.
Evidence of how the Lady Bearcats can win games when Souza is not leading them in scoring came on Feb. 6 in St. Joseph in an 82-72 win over Missouri Western State University. Courtney Creed, a 5-8 junior guard/forward from Walnut Grove, scored 21 points, Cortney Shewmaker, a 5-6 junior guard from Buffalo, had 17, and Kelly Reinkemeyer, a 6-3 senior center from Linn, added 12 points and 10 rebounds. Souza was limited to 11 points but adjusted well to the defense with 9 assists.
Middleton calls this a great passing team. For example, Rachel Graves, a 5-9 sophomore forward from Springfield, had eight assists against Missouri Western. “We don’t try to do things we’re not capable of,” he said.
Top crowd for a women’s game this season in Bolivar, as of Feb. 8, was estimated to be 1,300. Used to be students would come to support the Lady Bearcats and leave before the men tipped off. With the men being nationally ranked, and with each program getting off to a 17-4 start, both teams are looking to finish the season well. Middleton explained how hard that is.
“These aren’t blowouts,” he said. “It’s a five-point game the other night and we were down with about two minutes to go. That’s when the crowd really comes in handy then, during opportune times. They’re smart enough to understand the importance of the game, too.
“Crowds around here understand basketball. It’s just big here.”