By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
Missouri Western women’s basketball has been here before.
Getting hot in the back half of the season, and now facing a big test against Central Missouri. In just the last few years, the Griffons and Jennies have had many high stakes battles.
February 27, 2016 - Missouri Western beats UCM 77-61 to clinch the MIAA title outright.
January 13, 2018 - No. 12 UCM escapes St. Joseph with an 80-76 overtime win against the Griffons.
February 8, 2020 - Missouri Western beats No. 18 UCM 67-57, halting a 15-game winning streak for the Jennies.
Last season alone, the Griffons beat the Jennies twice in overtime in the regular season, and then Western routed UCM in the MIAA tournament 69-55 this past March, ending UCM’s season and ultimately clinching an NCAA tournament berth for the Griffons.
This Saturday marks another chapter in this storied rivalry. No. 5 and undefeated Central Missouri, off to a program record 16-0 start, comes to St. Joseph to face Missouri Western - a Griffon team that’s 16-4, winners of nine straight games.
Most recently, the Griffons took down Lincoln Thursday, 65-54. Not always the prettiest, but a win that Missouri Western coach Candi Whitaker was glad to have in the end.
"Not very pretty but we'll take it," she said. "A win's a win. Obviously, turnovers continue to be a problem for our team."
On the bright side, fast starts have been the key for Missouri Western this season. The Griffon women are outscoring teams in the first quarter a combined 393-275. Whitaker says of all the team’s she coached at Western, this one is the best at getting off to strong starts.
"They're the best at starting ball games," Whitaker said. "I mean, I think they've been really consistent. There hasn't been very many possessions where I felt like we weren't present, weren't showing up, weren't playing hard, weren't getting after it. It's become a big part of our identity and we're ready to go out of the gates."
Junior Connie Clarke has once again been vital this year, leading the Griffons and the MIAA with nine double-doubles this season. A second-team all-MIAA selection last year, Clarke says this year’s team has also done a great job of staying present and treating each opponent with equal respect.
"I know we have been focused and just taking it game-by-game," Clarke mentioned. "Not focusing on the streak that we have. Coach (Whitaker) just tells us to take it game-by-game and stay focused in practice and just keep staying motivated."
It’s admittedly hard to treat this game like any other. Central Missouri is the only undefeated team left in the MIAA.
If the Griffons want to win the MIAA regular season title, a win on Saturday is practically a must, as this is the only time that Western and UCM meet in the regular season. It’s a game that likely has Central Region ranking implications as well.
With Lincoln now in the rearview, and with UCM escaping Northwest Thursday with a 68-67 win, Whitaker embraces this upcoming challenge.
"It's a great opportunity to be able to get UCM at home with our one shot to upset them and give them their first loss."
Clarke encourages Griff nation to pack the Missouri Western Fieldhouse Saturday and to help support the Griffons in what will no doubt be another memorable showdown between two MIAA heavyweights in women’s basketball.
"It's a big game," she said. "We're both fighting for something, so...yeah. Come out. Support."
Saturday's game starts at 1:30 p.m. It will be carried live on KFEQ Radio (680, 95.3, 680kfeq.com). The men's game will follow at 3:30 p.m. Live coverage Saturday starts at 1 p.m.
You can follow Tommy on Twitter @TommyKFEQ and St. Joseph Post @StJosephPost.