Jan. 20—The Missouri Southern women's basketball team has a chance to earn respect this week.
The Lions, who sit fourth in the MIAA with a 10-5 overall record and 7-3 conference mark, face two pivotal road matchups against the top two teams in the league.
MSSU opens this week at Fort Hays State (15-1) at 5:30 p.m. Thursday followed by Nebraska Kearney (14-2) at 2 on Saturday. Both MIAA foes enter this week's action an impressive 9-1 in the conference.
"If we want to earn a little more respect in our league and show we are a team that can compete for a conference title, that's two games you can show this team is for real," MSSU head coach Ronnie Ressel said after his team dominated Emporia State 86-63 last Saturday.
FHSU may just present the stiffest challenge for the Lions. The Tigers are ranked No. 2 in Division II — only behind Drury — and their only loss has come against No. 16 Nebraska Kearney 61-56 at home on Dec. 11.
In the preseason polls, FHSU was picked to win the MIAA. The Tigers have ample firepower and are headlined by 5-foot-11 guard Katie Wagner, who leads the team in scoring (16.3), rebounds (9.0) and steals (1.5).
Olivia Hollenbeck and Whitney Randall each average over double-figures for FHSU. Lauren West and Jaden Hobbs average nearly 10 points per game for the Hornets.
UNK's only setbacks have come to Southwest Minnesota State 76-66 in a non-conference matchup on Nov. 13. The No. 14 Lopers also fell to Central Missouri 58-52 at home on Jan. 8.
UNK was picked to finish third in the MIAA preseason polls. The Lopers' are led by second-team All-MIAA honoree Elisa Backes who leads the team with 11.3 points per contest while grabbing five boards.
Brooke Carlson and Trinity Law contribute nine points apiece. Shiloh McCool, Haley Simental and Klaire Kirsch chip in eight points.
"The kids are looking forward to it," Ressel said. "It's going to be a challenge, no doubt about it. They are two of the best teams in the league. Different styles. Kearney is a little more patient on both ends because they defend so well. They make you use the clock. Offensively, they work to get a good look. Hays is a little more up-and-down. They look to attack a lot quicker. It's going to be a big challenge. We have to take care of the basketball. That will be a big thing against Hays and Kearney is taking care of the basketball and knocking down shots.
"We have to defend. Both of those teams have a variety of kids that can score the basketball. It's a challenge in that aspect because you can't just key on one or two individuals. These two games are huge for us."
The Lions picked up their third straight victory with the win over the Hornets. MSSU stormed out to an early 24-11 at the end of the first period before extending that advantage to 45-25 at the break.
ESU got to within only 15 points once in the second half as the Lions were in cruise control the rest of the way.
The Lions were paced by the dynamic Stokes inside-out combination — no relation. Point guard Lacy Stokes finished with a game-high 16 points along with six rebounds, five assists and two steals on her way to being named MIAA Player of the Week.
Six-foot-three center Madi Stokes posted her third double-double with 15 points and a season-high 12 rebounds.