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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | January 20, 2016

DII Women's Notebook: Cal Baptist highlights a big week

  Cal Baptist looks primed to take home the PacWest title.

The California Baptist Lancers were somewhat the surprise of the DII Women’s Basketball world last season. Entering the season unranked, they would find themselves in their first ever NCAA National Championships since becoming a DII program. 

Once there, they seized the moment and captured everyone’s attention. Seeded No. 5 in their region — and still unranked in the nation — the Lancers would win the West Regional. They would advance past the Elite Eight with an impressive victory over a very strong New Haven team and they then would bring an end to the nation’s longest winning streak (an astounding 33 games) by handing Limestone an 18-point defeat in the Final Four. Their Cinderella season would come up just short in the NCAA Finals, falling to California (PA).

This year would be different. 

“You can’t get caught up in rankings,” junior guard Cassidy Mihalko said. “Whether you aren’t ranked, like we were last year, or you are near the top, like we are this year, you have to just give it your all every game and go in with confidence. I think that we all saw the focus and determination we needed to put forth to make it to the championship and with that experience already under our belts we could use it to better ourselves individually and as a team for this season.” 

Cal Baptist came into the 2015-16 season ranked No. 4 in the preseason polls. They returned nearly their whole team, including four of the five starters from their magical postseason run. Junior guards Kamille Diaz, Courtney Nelson and Cassidy Mihalko were all preseason All-PacWest, while senior center Darsha Burnside — who tied for the most double-doubles (23) in DII last season — was a preseason All-American honorable mention. It seemed like it should be smooth sailing back to the postseason.

But nothing is ever as it seems.

The Lancers would come out on fire, starting 7-0 on the season. They would lose their first game of the season against Azusa Pacific, the team most felt could possibly challenge Cal Baptist for the PacWest title. A week later, Burnside — who was amongst the nation’s best in rebounds at 12.6 a night while already posting six double-doubles on the young season — was lost to a knee injury. She hasn’t played since.

The Lancers regrouped and have been on a roll despite missing their big presence in the low post. It has been in large part behind the play of the three junior guards who lead one of the most dynamic scoring offenses in the nation.

“Our offense is best when we are moving the ball,” CBU head coach Jarrod Olson said. “We have a phrase, ‘let the ball find the shooter.’ We expect every player to be able to shoot, pass and dribble. We do different things from year to year, but sharing the ball is the constant. Kamille and Cassidy have been great this year. They have a connection on the court that is really fun to watch.” 

CBU would bring their No. 4 offense (currently putting up 85.3 points a night) into a rematch with APU that would feature a matchup between nationally ranked teams this past Saturday night. The game would go down to a thrilling finale, but CBU — then ranked No. 5 — would rise victorious over then- ranked No. 24 APU by the slim margin of 63-62. Mihalko would lead all scorers with a tremendous 24-point performance.

“That was one of the closest games we played in in a while,” Mihalko said of her team’s gritty performance. “I thought we kept our composure really well towards the end which is different than what happened the first time we played APU at their place. The fact we kept our heads and finished out the game this time shows that we learned from our first loss and kept improving since then. That’s all you can really ask, is that we keep on improving game by game. Overall we are all very proud of each other and hope to keep building off that game.”

“Every game vs APU is intense,” Olson said. “We have had some really good ones -- even in my short time at CBU. This most recent one was almost too intense. The play, especially on offense was not either teams best.  It was a packed gym, every shot was contested, every loose ball fought for. It was a very exciting game, and we were fortunate to win it.”

Mihalko has been playing some of the best basketball of her career this season. She’s currently recording a career high in both points (20.2) and rebounds (6.7), including scoring 22 or more points in five of her last seven contests. 

“The biggest difference between this year and last year is just being more comfortable with my game and having more confidence in myself,” Mihalko said of her 2015-16 performance thus far. “With Darsha out, it definitely changes the game a little bit but I don’t feel any added pressure on myself in particular, I just have to keep playing basketball.  

“Megan [Frerer] has really stepped up and done some big things for us. It’s just nice to have that kind of depth and trust in each other. It evens out the pressure among everyone so that not just one person feels like they have to step up or do it all themselves, we really play as a team.”

Frerer — their junior center — has played impressively inside for the Lancers. She has averaged 11.6 rebounds a game since moving into the starting rotation five games ago, including a team high 14 in the big win over APU. 

Mihalko’s — who is the PacWest’s leading scorer and 14th overall in the nation — play has not gone unnoticed. She took home PacWest Player of the Week honors, her second of the season.

Now sitting at 15-1 and No. 6 in the USA Today poll, the Lancers hit the road on a tough trip. The upcoming week is a big test as they embark on their Hawaii road trip in which they play three games in five days.

Shakeup at the top

This week’s USA Today Coaches Poll sees a new No. 1 while the Top 25 lost two more undefeated teams. Four of the top five teams in the country find themselves in new spots with Missouri Western State making the biggest jump climbing five spots to No. 5.

West Texas A & M, the former No. 1 in the land, rolled into Angelo State sitting at 15-0. They would leave on the losing side of a heartbreaking 69-64 final score. Despite bouncing back with a commanding 85-49 victory over Texas A & M - Kingsville on Saturday, the loss drops them down to No. 8 this week. 

That allowed Alaska-Anchorage to claim the No. 1 spot in the nation for the first time since last season. The SeaWolves won two games last week to extend their current winning streak to eight in a row. Currently sitting at 20-1 overall on the season, they are tied atop the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in a three-team logjam with a 7-1 conference record.

“It was one of our team goals to get back to the top of the rankings this year, so we will take some cautious satisfaction in this accomplishment,” Seawolf head coach Ryan McCarthy told UAA Athletics. “This is also a sign of the respect we’ve earned over the past few years as one of the nation’s best programs. Despite all that, we know that championships are won in March, and our focus will remain on improving until we reach our ultimate goals.”

American International College joined WTAMU in falling from the ranks of the undefeated. Consecutive tight losses to Franklin Pierce and Bentley at home saw them skid to 15-2 on the season, and fall out of the Top 25. They look to rebound this week against St. Anselm who comes to Springfield amid a three-game winning streak of their own.

RELATED: Division II USA Today Women's Basketball Poll

That leaves No. 2 Lubbock Christian University (15-0), No. 4 Ashland University (16-0), No. 5 Missouri Western State (17-0) and No. 7 Limestone (14-0) as the lone undefeated teams left in the rankings. 

MWSU is off to their best start ever and have their highest ranking since the 2007 season. Coming off an impressive victory over then-No. 9 ranked Emporia State, the Griffons are set to play what should be the game of the week this coming Thursday as No. 3 Fort Hays State comes to MWSU Fieldhouse in a huge MIAA showdown.

Cal Baptist swimming towards the top of the rankings

The Lancers were also involved in another battle which featured two of the top ranked teams in the nation. The No. 6 CBU women’s swimming and diving team took a big meet against the No. 2 ranked UC San Diego this past Saturday at the Lancer Aquatics Center. The Lancer men and women would sweep the day in the dual meet.

CBU head coach Rick Rowland called it a “banner day in CBU history,” as the Lancers defeated a UCSD team that has often been a thorn in their side. Alena Rumiantceva led the way, as she rose victorious in every race in which she swam. The junior breast stroke specialist won three individual events as well as the 400-yard medley.