Whitney Jennings makes a pass to a teammate. Jennings and the Bulldogs lost eight of their final nine regular season games. Collegian file photo.
CHRIS BROWN | STAFF REPORTER | email@example.com
Butler women’s basketball forward Iman Lathan started off the scoring against Creighton with a jump shot. Whitney Jennings hit a 3-pointer. Michelle Weaver knocked down a 3-pointer of her own. Shae Brey and Tori Schickel converted layups in the next five minutes.
Before Creighton knew it, they were facing a major deficit against a Butler team that, based off preseason conference rankings, had no business winning.
Ten minutes into play at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Jan. 19, the Butler women’s basketball team led Creighton University 22-9. Jennings topped the team with 17 points as Butler topped Creighton 59-53. The Bulldogs outshot the Bluejays from beyond the arc by four percentage points, and Butler out-rebounded Creighton 42-35.
Roughly a month later and 10 minutes into play at D.J. Sokol Arena, Butler trailed Creighton 18-10. On their home court, Creighton limited Jennings to 10 points, outshot Butler from beyond the arc by 20 percentage points and out-rebounded the Bulldogs 38-35. Coming off a win over Providence, Butler suffered its seventh loss in the last eight games.
While these two games may not have been Butler’s most significant in a season where they topped a ranked Villanova, they exemplify the sharp contrast between the first and second halves of conference play.
After going 5-4 to start Big East action in their best first half of conference play since the 2014-15 season, the Bulldogs went 1-8 to finish out the regular season. In addition to Creighton, Butler dropped three games to teams they previously defeated, while failing to overcome any of the four teams they previously fell to the second time around.
“The first time through, I think it was a surprise to some people that maybe … took us for granted a little bit,” head coach Kurt Godlevske said. “Then I think the adjustments they made…they did a fantastic job of making things very difficult on Whitney and Tori [Schickel].”
Opponents adjusted to keep the 5-foot-5-inch Jennings off balance on the perimeter and push Schickel away from the basket with double teams.
“I really think teams are starting to realize that we’re trying to get in the paint, and they’re pushing us out further,” Schickel said. “Defensively, we don’t have lot of our first options anymore because everybody’s watching film on us. Although we have so many quick hit [plays], they are starting to catch onto those.”
In Schickel and Jennings, Butler has had a dynamic scoring combination both on the boards and beyond the arc. Jennings finished third in the conference in both made 3-pointers and points per game, while Schickel finished fifth in points per game and third in rebounds per game. But behind that pair, the team has lacked both the amount depth and scoring options of many other Big East teams.
In three of Butler’s four losses against teams they previously defeated, the Bulldogs had just two players reach double digit point totals. In three of those same four contests, their opponents had four or more players scoring double digits.
“We’re playing against seven schools that were already cemented into the old Big East…and already had their roots into the types of athletes that they were recruiting,” Godlevske said. “So, we had probably the farthest to go in terms of catching up in that area. We’re on the verge of getting there, but depth is an issue.”
From the first half of conference play to the second, Butler also saw its rebounding margin shift from positive to negative. After out-rebounding their opponents by 59 in the first nine games, opponents out-rebounded the Bulldogs by 36 in the final games of the season.
“We pride ourselves in making sure that we’re limiting teams to one shot per possession,” Godlevske said. “We went through a stretch of games where that was very difficult, and the numbers kind of reflect that.”
The Bulldogs also struggled to contain opponents from beyond the arc in the second half conference play. Their opponents’ 3-point field goal percentage rose roughly 10 points from 26 to 36 percent.
Godlevske added that strong starts of games have been crucial for the team. Butler won only two conference games this season after trailing at the end of the first quarter.
“[Getting off to strong starts] doesn’t put us into situations where we have to extend and play out of position and out of character,” he said.
Despite the recent struggles, the Bulldogs have still clearly improved from the team that went 6-25, winning just two Big East games a season ago. Butler finished the regular season with a 6-12 conference record, the best since Godlevske’s first season as head coach four years ago.
“[Last season] we only won two conference games, but we realized we could start playing with these teams,” Schickel said. “And this year we’re getting more wins. But now it’s putting all those pieces together and doing it consistently and over a long stretch of time.”
Follow Chris on Twitter: @cbrownsports