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KARLL: Tiger women are hitting their stride

DWU has won four of its last five games.

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The Dakota Wesleyan University women’s basketball team’s current 4-1 stretch wasn’t easily predictable.

Aside from it being preceded by three straight losses and a 15-day quarantine, the Tigers feature a starting lineup of a junior, two sophomores, true freshman and transfer player. Even in a down year, it’s a grueling, upset-filled Great Plains Athletic Conference schedule for any team, let alone one trying to fit together new pieces.

Yet, here is DWU, at 7-5 overall and back to .500 (5-5) in GPAC play.

An 85-80 win over Concordia (Neb.) capped the current stretch on Wednesday, showing it at its peak when it grew a second-quarter lead to 20 points and made Concordia’s press look pedestrian at times. But also the work still to be done for a young, but promising, core, as Concordia cut the deficit to one point.

More importantly, as three underclassmen -- Matti Reiner, Haidyn Pitsch and Rynn Osthus -- made 6 of 8 free-throws down the stretch to secure the win, it showed the team’s growth.

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A month ago, before this current run, it wasn’t likely a game the Tigers won. It would’ve been another close loss, reminiscent of a six-point loss to Northwestern (Iowa) and three-point defeat at Jamestown (N.D.), which both went down to the final minutes. Instead, it’s DWU’s biggest win of the season and puts them in the middle of the GPAC standings.

“We grew up a lot. I don’t think we win that one a month ago, honestly,” DWU coach Jason Christensen said.

It’s not the same Concordia team which competed for national championships the last three years. It’s a different ensemble of characters for each side. Still, the Bulldogs force a GPAC-high 22.8 turnovers per game, and other than Kaylee Kirk, none of the Tigers had handled the press for a full 40 minutes before Wednesday.

The way DWU maneuvered through the press, passing to open teammates for easy transition buckets is rarely seen against the Bulldogs and Concordia eventually went away from the press. It shows how the Tigers have grown up in a very short amount of time.

Early in the season, DWU lost four of its first five conference games. They showed improvement, even if it didn’t reflect in the standings, but it was fair to wonder how much DWU would win in conference play this year. Not because of a lack of potential in its young core, but more so that the GPAC is historically one of the better NAIA conferences.

But the Tigers are playing with a different level of confidence, which comes from winning but also experience.

“I think us freshmen have finally realized what college basketball is all about,” Pitsch said. “We finally realized what we’re able to do in a game, and we’ve gone out and done it.”

And now, they’re set up for a push for better postseason seeding. Other than No. 14 Morningside (Iowa) at 10-1 in GPAC play, the middle of the conference is piled together. Northwestern and Jamestown (N.D.) are only a half-game ahead of 5-5 DWU, while Midland (Neb.) is 8-5, adding another five-loss team to the GPAC.

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DWU travels to Midland and College of St. Mary (Neb.) over the weekend, and then to Northwestern on Wednesday. It hosts Mount Marty and College of St. Mary on back-to-back Sundays following its three-game road trip. All are winnable games.

Christensen knows DWU won’t go undefeated the rest of the way, and has expressed multiple times this year that it’s not only about wins and losses with this group. It’s also about development and still figuring out a rotation, as he plays 10-to-12 players and rides the hot hand in the second half.

DWU might not be the same national threat as recent years, but it also doesn’t fold at the first sight of trouble like some young teams. By staying strong, this group has turned a potential rebuilding year into a competitive one.

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