McFeely: Bison exit WNIT quickly, and now the real work begins
Coach Jory Collins and NDSU women's basketball program made progress this season, but they have to keep momentum going
A berth in the WNIT was progress, even if it was all but preordained it wasn't going to end well for North Dakota State.
The Bison were overwhelmed in Eugene, Ore., as expected.
Now the real work begins for Jory Collins.
This season provided a glimmer of hope, a flicker of expectation.
There's a word that hasn't been associated with the North Dakota State women's basketball program for awhile.
That's the narrative heading into the 2023-24 season for the Bison and Collins, their coach.
There are now expectations on the Bison women.
But put a governor on your enthusiasm.
Oregon showed Friday night in the first round of the Women's National Invitational Tournament that NDSU still has miles to go before it can consider itself a contender for the Summit League's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
Which we already knew. This is not breaking news.
The gap between South Dakota State and everybody else in the Summit remains miles apart, as witnessed by the Jackrabbits' No. 9 seed and victory against USC in the Big Dance on Friday. So nobody in Fargo should get goofy about where the Bison sit in the pecking order of women's basketball.
The Ducks romped 96-57 to end NDSU's season 18-12. The Bison finished with two straight losses. Not ideal, particularly the way the Bison flamed out in Sioux Falls, S.D., at the conference tournament. Losing in their first game to 10th-seeded Kansas City was a clunker.
The result at Oregon, on the other hand, was not unexpected. The Ducks are a longtime major-conference power, the Bison are a mid-major trying to claw out of sub-mediocrity. An NDSU win would've been a major upset.
The Bison trailed 19-17 in the first half before Oregon went on a 16-0 run. The game wasn't close again. The Ducks were more athletic, longer and better at every position. It was obvious.
And how do you account for a 6-foot-8 player like the Ducks have? In women's basketball? Phillipina Kyei was a special problem.
But the thumping doesn't erase the strides made by NDSU, getting 12 victories in the conference for the second time in its Division I history and the second seed for the postseason tournament for the first time.
Collins came here four years ago exuding the confidence he was going to get things turned around. It seemed NDSU was going to be a four- or five-year stop in his larger career plans. It'll take a little longer.
There was obvious progress his first couple of seasons before 2021-22 came off the tracks. Player issues, coaching staff issues. A one-game exit from the conference tournament after a rocky regular season seemed blessing more than curse.
This season was unquestioned forward progress. Freshman Elle Evans, with her length and athleticism, is unlike any player the Bison have had in the Division I era. Freshman Abby Graham, while inconsistent, brings some athleticism and toughness.
Heaven Hamling, coming back next season, is the team leader and top scorer.
The Bison return plenty more and will get some help.
Collins likes two players he redshirted, 6-foot-3 Marwa Bedziri from Sweden and point guard Leah McKenzie from Australia. Having a true point guard will help immensely.
He also figures his incoming recruiting class will provide some immediate help. It includes West Fargo's 6-1 post Miriley Simon and Hamling's younger sister Taryn, a point guard from Grand Rapids, Minn. Avery Koenen, a 6-3 wing from Montevideo, Minn., is intriguing. There's also guard Abby Kryzwenski from Wayzata, Minn.
Collins will probably add another transfer or two. And the Bison will need to get more athletic — that much was exposed in their loss to Kansas City in the conference tournament. At times, NDSU looked plodding instead of nimble.
This is not a program ready to declare itself ready to overtake the Jackrabbits.
But the fact we're even talking about Bison women's basketball in mid-March, after a postseason tournament game, is a huge leap forward.
To keep things going that direction is the next challenge.