DECATUR — Something is happening to the Millikin women’s basketball team.
The Big Blue returned much of the same bunch that was solid last season (15-11), but not spectacular. After a 1-2 start this year, Millikin (7-3) has won six of seven.
Sunday’s 93-35 win over Blackburn was the Big Blue’s fifth straight and gave it the championship of the Harriett Crannell Holiday Classic.
CCIW play, which begins on Jan. 4, will be the true test of Millikin’s improvement. But a non-conference schedule that has included two wins over ranked teams and another over previously unbeaten Wisconsin Lutheran bodes well.
So does the emergence of Julia Robert offensively, Nikki Tipsword off the bench and Olya Cholewick at point guard. Put them with a probable All-American in Elise Wildman and versatile role players in Crystal Zeigler and Beth Wellbaum, and Millikin has its best team since 2007-08’s 20-7 squad.
“I feel really good about where we are right now,” Millikin coach Lori Kerans said. “Our current juniors played together on JV and then came in as varsity players last year as sophomores. But they had a little sophomore-itis. It’s kind of hard to get the program and understand defensively what we’re doing. But the junior year is typically the sunshine year.”
Millikin starts with Wildman, who is the latest in a line of outstanding Big Blue post players. She had 19 points and 19 rebounds against Blackburn. As the rotation’s only senior, she’s the unquestionable leader.
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“It’s her senior year — she’s worked hard to become great, and we’ve all tried to follow what she does,” said Zeigler, a MacArthur grad.
But the biggest reason for Millikin’s improvement is Robert. After shooting 31 percent on 3-pointers last year, she’s making 43 percent from beyond the arc and raised her scoring average six points to 15.7 per game. She’s also the team’s second-leading rebounder with 6.5 per game.
“She’s the glue that makes everyone else say, ‘We’re OK,’ even when things go wrong,” Kerans said. “She committed herself to being in great shape. She was always a phenomenal shooter, but she’s a better athlete now and that allows her to do things like shoot on the move.”
The Millikin lineup’s two sophomores combined to score a total of four points last year, but have been surprisingly good. Tipsword comes off the bench, and because of Zeigler and Robert’s versatility, is almost a sixth starter. Once she enters, she usually stays in as Kerans gives the others a rest. Tipsword, a Newton grad who had 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting on Saturday, can score in the post and has 3-point shooting range.
“There was a shot she made today — a left-handed bank shot in the first half — where I turned to (assistant coach Dick Marshall) and said, ‘Was that on purpose?,’ ” Kerans said. “And in typical Dick Marshall fashion, he says, ‘Hell, we’ve been working on that move all year.’ She’s really worked on her game and given us that added depth we needed.”
Cholewick is an athletic guard who looks to distribute. She and junior Beth Wellbaum — who serves almost as a second point guard — combined for 15 assists and three turnovers against Blackburn.
“We’re sharing the basketball so well,” Kerans said. “They’re making the extra pass. They want to take care of each other.”
Zeigler said it’s that mindset that’s led to the improvement
“One person hits a shot, then it’s another person, then another — we all feed off of each other,” Zeigler said. “It’s like a group confidence.”
Kerans likes the way her team is playing and is thrilled with the added excitement surrounding her team. But she also knows there’s work to do to play at the same level against Illinois Wesleyan, Carthage and the rest of the CCIW.
“I feel good about the progress we’ve made,” Kerans said. “I just want to make sure this isn’t our peak. The challenge is to keep getting better.”