Shooting to win with winners who shoot

More news about: Willamette
Ashley Evans is the top 3-point shooter on a team that loves the long ball.
Photo by Christopher Sabato, Willamette Athletics 

Peg Swadener was a shooter. And she wanted to coach shooters.

After taking over the Willamette women's basketball program in 2012-13, with the Bearcats coming off a 1-24 season, Swadener knew who she had to recruit.

Not just shooters, but shooters who were winners.

As the associate head coach and recruiting coordinator at Division I Portland State prior to arriving at Willamette, Swadener had a chance to watch Medford, Ore., native Kylie Towry play. South Medford High's career scoring leader stayed on the coach's radar.

"When I took the job at Willamette she was one of the first people I contacted," Swadener said. "I was at a tournament and had a chance to watch her play and talked to some people about her. When I found out there was interest at the Division III level, then I was all over."

Citing the right balance of academics and basketball, Towry chose Willamette. It's a decision that has paid off for both sides.

"She had that balance, she could shoot from the perimeter and was an absolute, just tough competitor," Swadener said. "I knew if she wanted to come to Willamette, it'd take a lot of hard work, but I knew she could help develop a winning team."

More shooters followed, jumping into Swadener's ball-screen offense that's predicated on every player knowing where the open scorer will be on each possession.

The culture change accelerated when practice, where the top priority is learning the game, was over. In their free time, Towry said the goal is 700-1,000 shots a week.

Willamette is showing its potential early this season, off to a 6-1 start while being the only team with two players in the top 50 nationally in 3-point percentage.

There's Towry, of course, at .462 (24-52), but point guard Ashley Evans actually leads the team at .475 (19-40).

There's no leaderboard in the locker room or friendly trash talk before and after games. Both players emphasize team success and know it wouldn't be possible if the defense could focus on only one of them.

"It's awesome to have other teammates that step up," Towry said. "It's really funny because when we play we joke around like, oh it's your turn, oh it's my turn. We love to be able to both experience it."

Towry became the school's all-time 3-point leader with 178, surpassing the old mark of 174 in a Nov. 26 win over Pacific Union. Yet unselfishness is evident in the numbers, too. When Evans tied Towry's single-game record with nine 3s on Nov. 15 against Pacific Union, Towry assisted on eight of them.

Willamette struggled early in Towry's career, but made steady progress, going 4-21, then 7-18. Another wins increase came last year, up to a 12-13 mark. Now, the Bearcats' 6-1 start has included a 72-48 win over Whitworth on Saturday, their first since 2009, a span of 14 games.

"Especially this year, we're becoming more confident in our ability to win and our ability to get things done," Evans said. "It's just a different mindset."

Evans has been the starting point guard for most of her career, but as WU has added depth, has a chance to play off the ball and get even more 3-point opportunities.

"I've always been a facilitator first," Evans said. "It's always been something I've enjoyed doing, getting people open and creating shots for other people. But as I've gotten older and my role has changed on the team, I've become more of a shooter first and progressing to be an all-around shooter at some point throughout the season."

That's a perfect mix for Swadener, who gives every shooter a constant green light. In a conference that features three ranked teams, a solid recipe for an upset is when the outside shot is falling.

"Having been a shooter myself, I know how important it is to believe in them and give them the green light and let them know that every miss is just one step closer to the next make," Swadener said. "Just trying to create the atmosphere where everybody knows they've got the green light and they're confident in their shot."

Since Towry, who is a junior eligibility-wise but hasn't yet decided on a possible fifth year, set the school record, she's gone 0-for-6 from outside in her last two games.

Clearly just closer to the next make. More important to her: the next win, and one more step in WU's turnaround.

UPS delivers

When the final buzzer sounded Saturday at Puget Sound and the Loggers' 86-85 upset of No. 8 George Fox was complete, senior Alexis Noren looked to the stands.

Immediately she found Emily Sheldon and Allie Wyszynski, seniors on last year's team who never got to experience what Noren was feeling.

This was Puget Sound's first win over the Bruins since January 2011. Noren had 19 points, 10 rebounds, hit all 11 free throws and had a 3-point play that put UPS up 84-82 with 31 seconds left.

"This was such a huge goal for our program the last four years," Noren told sports information. "I've never beat them before, until tonight."

Samone Jackson scored a career-high 27 points and Elizabeth Prewitt added 21 a night after she totaled 25 against Linfield.

UPS (6-0) was rewarded with a spot in the top 25 this week at No. 22. NWC rival Whitman also jumped in at No. 25, while George Fox dropped to 15th.

It's a win that – while only December – clouds the conference race.

"I just think that we now realize our potential," Noren said. "We realize that the sky is the limit, it feels like. It feels like we have so much more to prove, so much more to clean up, that we can go so far."

Augsburg does it again

Does Augsburg have St. Thomas' number?

For a team that's won 11 straight MIAC titles, that's a bold claim to make. But the Auggie men have now taken two straight against the Tommies, pulling away from a 67-67 deadlock Saturday for a 76-70 victory.

Last season Augsburg scored a 98-89 win against UST, which of course went on to win the national title, Feb. 10.

You can bet St. Thomas will have a little extra motivation when the teams meet again Jan. 21 at UST.

Men's performers of the week

Sam Amsbaugh followed up his 40-point performance last Monday with 38 and 12 rebounds against Grinnell on Wednesday. He added 21 on 7 of 9 shooting, including a pair of 3-pointers, when the Storm handed Wartburg its first loss Saturday, 81-68.

Cooper Cook pumped in a career-high 32 points with six 3-pointers as Nebraska Wesleyan scored its first ever Iowa Conference win Saturday against Buena Vista, 88-82. Cook filled the stat sheet with seven rebounds, five blocks and three assists against the Beavers.

JJ Lacey totaled 45 points as George Fox got off to a 2-0 start in the NWC. Lacey hit six 3s en route to 25 points in a narrow 87-86 victory over Pacific, then had 20 points and seven boards the next night as the Bruins defeated Puget Sound 85-78.

CD Douglas was a scoring machine for Minnesota Morris last week. He put up 32 in a 90-78 win over Finlandia, then had 29 and 12 boards as the Cougars fell 81-67 to Northland.

Honorable mention this week to Porter Morrell, who went off for 36 points in Northwestern's 92-81 UMAC-opening win over UW-Superior

Women's top performers

Jenna Lehman was all over for Coe early last week, first totaling 31 points in an OT loss to Augustana, then leading the Kohawks with 26 points as they gave Central its first loss, 72-59. Lehman missed just one shot against the Dutch and was 5 of 6 from beyond the arc. The 57 points is the most in back-to-back games in school history.

Katie Sommer helped keep No. 8 Wartburg undefeated with a pair of all-around performances. After leading the Knights past Nebraska Wesleyan, 79-57, with 15 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, Sommer had 26 points, six assists and four steals in a 76-60 victory at Simpson. She was 12 of 17 from the field and 5 for 6 from deep against the Storm.

Brandi Blattner led St. Mary's past Carleton with 23 points and 17 rebounds, hitting a buzzer beater to send the game to overtime. Emma Schaeffer's bank shot at the OT horn gave the Blazers a 61-60 win.

Mauren Thiesen scored 13 straight fourth-quarter points, including three 3-pointers to give Minnesota Morris a 79-71 win over Northland. She finished with 24 as the Cougars won their UMAC opener, 83-76.

Miranda Rice took a bit of the scoring load off Mikayla Miller for Gustavus Adolphus last week, averaging 20 points in blowout wins over Concordia-Moorhead and Macalester to keep the Golden Gusties (7-0, 2-0) unbeaten, their best start since 2002-03.

Hidden gem of the week

Concordia-Moorhead looked to be facing a halftime deficit against Gustavus on Wednesday, until a six-point possession tied it at 43 headed to the break. Dylan Alderman was fouled on a 3 with six seconds left and an ensuing argument led to a technical foul on Gustavus. Zach Kinny made the two technical free throws, then Alderman made his first two. After missing the third, Dawson Peterson grabbed the rebound and passed back out to Alderman for a buzzer-beating jumper. But the Cobbers couldn't carry that momentum to the second 20 minutes, falling 92-75.

Honorable mention: The Nebraska Wesleyan and Buena Vista women broke a five-plus minute scoring drought with six points in the final five seconds. Morgan Muhlbauer's layup gave BV the lead, NWU took it back with three seconds left on Caitlin Navratil's layup, then Muhlbauer struck again with a layup at the buzzer to give the Beavers a 53-52 victory.

Nathan Ford

Nathan Ford is the digital sports editor at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He graduated from Wartburg College in 2015, where he covered Wartburg and Iowa Conference athletics in print and broadcast for four years. He began contributing to in 2013.