Women’s basketball ready for tough test at No. 9 Louisville

Micaela Kelly moves to make a shot during a game against Green Bay, Wednesday, Nov. 6 in McGuirk Arena.

After a narrow defeat against Green Bay in a double overtime thriller, the action does not slow down for the Central Michigan women’s basketball team. 

The Chippewas (0-1) travel to face No. 9 ranked Louisville (2-0) at 6 p.m. Thursday in the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Last season, the two teams met in Mount Pleasant. The Cardinals walked out of McGuirk Arena with a 72-68 victory in a closely contested Dec. 20 matchup. 

Former coach Sue Guevara praised her team for the valiant effort, but said she is never happy with a loss.

"I'm very happy with the way we competed," Guevara said after last year's game. "I couldn't have asked for much more, except maybe a few more shots to go in. With the tenacity we played with for 40 minutes, I'm happy with the effort."

Both teams went on to make the NCAA Tournament as the Chippewas lost in the opening round to Michigan State. The Cardinals advanced to the Elite Eight before falling to Connecticut.

That was then; this is now.

The Chippewas are led by a new head coach, with long-time associate head coach Heather Oesterle at the helm following Guevara's retirement in July. 

CMU's roster looks different, as well. Key players Reyna Frost and Presley Hudson are no longer on the team. 

Central Michigan travels to Louisville in an environment that will not be as friendly as McGuirk Arena.

Although exterior aspects of the team look different, the feeling from inside the program feel similar.

The Chippewas are ranked No. 14 in the mid-major top 25 poll and still have the same goals and expectations the program has held for the last several years.

The game will certainly be a challenge for CMU, but it's one that the Chippewas do not plan on backing away from. Oesterle said the nerves of her players are completely understandable. 

However, she wants tough players in the program. 

”We recruit kids, and we sit down and tell them, 'Look, if you want to play some of the top teams in the country, you come here,'” Oesterle said. “Our strength of schedule is always up there after the preseason, and we don’t back down from anybody.”

Juniors Maddy Watters and Kyra Bussell are two players that have seen a fair share of ups and downs throughout their time in the program. 

Both players started the season strong and are key players that could impact whether or not the Chippewas come away with a victory.

Watters hit five 3-pointers in the opening game, finishing with 17 points before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. Bussell led the team in scoring with a career-high 29 points while playing 45 minutes – the second most on the team.

Only freshman Molly Davis played more in the opener. She finished her first career game with 49 minutes played, tossing in 15 points and 10 assists.

Bussell was named the Mid-American Conference West Division Player of the Week after finishing one rebound shy of a double-double opening night. She said the trip will be tough.

“We’re expecting a really tough competition, they’re ranked No. 9 in the country right now,” Bussell said. “They’re a lot bigger than us. They have really good offensive transition.

"We just have to stop them before they get over half court.”

Looking at the Cardinals' offense, they have scored 24 fast break points through two games. They've registered 44 points off turnovers and 40 on second chance opportunities.

Despite the high score and two overtime periods, the Chippewas only allowed Green Bay to score six points in transition. On the other hand, the Chippewas allowed 23 second chance points and 24 points off turnovers to the Phoenix. 

After being outrebounded, 41-29, Oesterle said the Chippewas will need an improvement in that category to beat Louisville.

“The biggest thing for us is that we have to be on the boards,“ Oesterle said. “We can’t get outrebounded like we did against Green Bay, especially against a team that’s a lot more athletic.”

Oesterle plans to utilize the talent of players like Bussell, Watters and Davis to exploit some of the weaknesses Louisville might have.

”(Bussell) is one of those players that Louisville’s bigs have to come out and guard her,” Oesterle said. “That’s a big advantage for us. Otherwise, she can shoot the ball.”

Davis and junior guard Micaela Kelly will also be important pieces.

”We have the pieces to go in there and really cause some problems for them.” Oesterle said. “We have (Kelly) and Molly that can really attack if they look to switch, because they switched some of our on balls last time we played.”

Kelly finished the first game with 20 points, six assists, two rebounds and two steals and is the emotional leader of this team. 

Look for Kelly to split time with Davis running the offense – similar to their roles against Green Bay – while Kelly should be asked to do a little bit of everything for the Chippewas.

For Davis, the second game of her collegiate career comes against a top 10 program that is nationally revered.

How Davis responds could determine what type of game the Chippewas have. 

After an 0 for 8 night shooting from the 3-point line against Green Bay, Davis will look to get her shooting stroke on track and help lead the team against the Cardinals.

Not many analysts around the country expect the Chippewas to win the game, but a strong showing could answer questions about this team, Oesterle and her staff.