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Analysis: Examining Bradley women’s basketball’s non-conference schedule

Caroline Waite shoots a three-pointer. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics

After an obstacle-filled 4-24 campaign in the 2021-22 season, Bradley’s women’s basketball team will face a challenging start to the upcoming season under first-year head coach Kate Popovec-Goss.

Two Power Five foes, a Sweet 16 team and a battle with former Missouri Valley Conference member Loyola-Chicago headline the non-conference slate this year, so reigning MVC Freshman of the Year Caroline Waite and the Braves will be on the lookout to surprise some teams.

With the addition of Murray State, Belmont and Illinois-Chicago to the conference schedule, MVC teams will play 11 non-conference games instead of the typical 13. With this new format, every possession will count just a little bit more if Bradley wants to successfully build their resume outside of the Valley.

Below is an analysis of all of the Braves’ non-conference games with what to expect from each opponent:

Nov. 10: at Missouri // ‘21-22: 18-13 (NET: 56)

Following an exhibition with McKendree on Nov. 3, the Braves will start off the Popovec-Goss era with a true road test against an SEC foe. The Tigers were responsible for one of top-ranked South Carolina’s two losses on the Gamecocks’ journey to a national championship last season. They also took down No. 21 Florida and only lost by two to No. 5 Baylor and No. 12 LSU. Mizzou is familiar with the MVC, beating Murray State but dropping games to Missouri State and Drake last year.

The Tigers lost second-team All-SEC guard Aijha Blackwell to the aforementioned Baylor Bears, leaving behind 13 rebounds per game – the second-most in the nation – and 15.4 points per game. However, they do return senior forward Hayley Frank, who led the SEC in three-point percentage at 46.2% while leading her team in blocks and trailing only Blackwell in points per game with 15. Coming off an 11-5 home record, Missouri will present an early challenge for the new-look Braves.

Nov. 13: vs. South Dakota // ‘21-22: 29-6 (NET: 26)

The first home game for Bradley will not be an easy one, as they’re set to take on Summit League champion South Dakota who is just a season removed from making the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. As a 10-seed in the tournament, the Coyotes knocked off second-seeded Baylor to join Creighton as the highest seeds to make the regional semifinal last season. South Dakota lost by three to third-seeded Michigan in that Sweet 16 game, but they left as the last remaining team from a mid-major conference.

The success was bittersweet, as the Coyotes lost head coach Dawn Plitzuweit to West Virginia and graduated Summit League Player of the Year Chloe Lamb, among a slew of transfers. New head coach Kayla Karius, an assistant for Drake last year, returns nine players but also adds five new faces to try and bring South Dakota back to the NCAA tournament for the fifth year in a row.

This is the return game of a home-and-home series for the Braves. In last season’s 62-39 defeat for Bradley, South Dakota dominated the paint. Without three-time Summit League Defensive Player of the Year Hannah Sjerven and the game’s leading rebounder, Kyah Watson, it could be a different story this year.

Nov. 16: at Wisconsin // ‘21-22: 8-21 (NET: 205)

Isis Fitch shoots a jumper against Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics.

In what was an early-season win for Bradley last year, the Braves will head to Madison this time around to face one of Popovec-Goss’s former Big 10 rivals. In last season’s battle, the now-graduated Gabi Haack set the program scoring record in the Braves’ 64-57 victory. With Haack gone and eight newcomers added to Wisconsin’s squad, it could be a different outcome for the Braves. 

Although the Badgers only won eight games last season, five of them were in conference play which was the most they’ve won since 2014-15. To try and add to that, they brought in last year’s Patriot League Player of the Year Avery LaBarbera (16.5 PPG, 9.8 RPG) from Holy Cross along with returning four of their five starters, including leading scorer Julie Pospíšilová (14.1 PPG). In head coach Marisa Moseley’s second year at the helm, the Badgers will be looking for revenge.

Nov. 19: vs. McNeese State // ‘21-22: 13-15 (NET: 303)

Returning to Peoria, the Braves will enter what is expected to be the easiest stretch of the season which starts with the Southland Conference’s McNeese State.

The Cowgirls shot over 30 percent from 3-point range and averaged 70 points per game last season. Returning all five starters, McNeese State will likely present a more experienced squad led by sophomore guard Kaili Chamberlain (11.0 PPG) and senior guard Desirae Hansen (10.6 PPG). That being said, the Braves should be favored to take this one, despite the help from Haack as the Cowgirls strength and conditioning coach.

Nov. 22: vs. Missouri Baptist (NAIA) // ‘21-22: 18-12

The only non-Division I team on the schedule, the Braves will get a battle with NAIA’s Missouri Baptist. Since 2018-19, the Braves have gone 4-1 versus non-Division I teams, losing last year’s matchup with Illinois-Springfield 79-71.

The Spartans finished third in the American Midwest Conference by winning 14 of their 18 conference games, the most wins in their history. They also return NAIA All-America Honorable Mention Tionne Taylor, who averaged 19.3 points per game last season, and add 10 transfers from the portal. However, the Spartans have never beat a DI team, so the Braves are expected to win here.

Nov. 29: vs. Missouri-Kansas City // ‘21-22: 23-9 (NET: 136)

Meeting for the first time since the 2020-21 season, the Roos will enter Renaissance Coliseum looking for a win this time around. Former Braves Lasha Petree and Haack led the Braves to a 84-70 victory that year.

The Roos picked up a big transfer from Utah State in the offseason. Guard/forward E’Lease Stafford joins the group this year after averaging nine points per game with the Aggies and leading the team in blocks with 28. Meanwhile, head coach Dionnah Jackson-Durrett will have her hands tied after losing all five starters from a year ago. Bradley will hope to pick up a win before heading to Chicago.

Dec. 3: at Loyola-Chicago // ‘21-22: 18-12 (NET: 119)

Bradley’s Chloe Rice dribbles against Loyola. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics

The Braves’ December stretch of non-conference games will all be away from Renaissance Coliseum, starting with former MVC rival Loyola-Chicago. In what will be an anticipated matchup for fans, women’s basketball becomes the first Bradley sport to get a crack at the Ramblers in a head-to-head matchup since they left the MVC.

Like the Braves, Loyola also introduced a new head coach this offseason, despite posting its best win total in over 30 years a season ago. Nevertheless, Allison Guth will be joined by newcomers Emma and Sophia Nolan from St. John’s as well as last year’s leading scorer, Maya Chandler (10.6 PPG), to highlight this squad with eight returning players. Bradley will look for its 30th all-time win over the Ramblers once the calendar hits December. 

Dec. 6: at Eastern Illinois // ‘21-22: 16-14 (NET: 198)

Staying in Illinois, the Braves will travel to Charleston for a battle with Eastern Illinois. Last season, the Panthers finished at 16-14 and in the middle of the Ohio Valley Conference. 

Head coach Matt Bollant lost three starters from last year, but retained the most important piece: senior guard Lariah Washington (15.6 PPG, 47.3% FG). Washington will have to hope that junior transfers Emily Meidel, Hannah Purcell and sophomore transfer Macy McGlone will step up if they want to even the all-time series with the Braves.

Dec. 16: at Miami (OH) // ‘21-22: 8-21 (NET: 218)

Continuing on the road December schedule, the Braves’ battle in Oxford, Ohio will include a familiar face. Junior forward Sierra Morrow transferred from Bradley to Miami (Ohio) this offseason, and will try to get the RedHawks a win against her former teammates. Morrow led the Braves with 40 blocks last season.

Alongside Morrow, Miami returns four starters, most importantly senior guard Peyton Scott, who led the team with 19.2 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game last year. Popovec-Goss shouldn’t have to do much extra to motivate her squad for this quality road matchup.

FIU Hoops Showdown:

Dec. 19: vs Florida International // ‘21-22: 15-16 (NET: 192) or George Mason // ‘21-22: 10-19 (NET: 236)

Dec. 20: vs Florida International or George Mason

Right before Christmas, Bradley will head to Miami to participate in the FIU Hoops Showdown. The trip marks the first non-conference tournament for the Braves since 2019, and they hope it will provide a nice end to their grueling out-of-conference slate. 

FIU finished near the bottom of the Conference USA last season with a 7-12 conference record.  They graduated their two leading scorers from a season ago and their top rebounder, meaning a rebuild is in the works for third-year head coach Jesyka Burks-Wiley. To aid in that, she went out and got guards Kaliah Henderson and Mihaela Lazic from Saint Joseph’s and South Florida, respectively. In her sophomore year at St. Joe’s, Henderson ended the regular season as the team’s leading scorer with 11.4 points per game, putting up double digits in 11 games. Lazic, on the other hand, was a part of two NCAA tournament teams at USF and helped the Bulls win their first AAC championship last season.

George Mason will also take the trip to Miami, coming off a last-place finish in the A-10. The Patriots could not get much going in conference last season, but were able to rattle off three straight wins over Bowling Green, Navy and Florida in the heart of non-conference play. They then went on a nine-game losing streak, leaving lots of work for head coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis to get her squad out of the hole. To make matters worse, they graduated leading scorer Amaya Scott and her 15.8 points per game, the only Patriot to average double digits. To attempt to replace her, they inked an intriguing transfer. Former Charlotte volleyball player Nalani Kaysia will take her talents to the baskets to try and help George Mason take down the Braves.

Once the beach vacation ends, Bradley will head back to Peoria for their first conference bout against Northern Iowa.

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