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Second-seeded Raiders women open HL tournament play Saturday

Katrina Merriweather admits to having some trepidation at her first practice as Wright State’s coach last October — especially with starting guards Chelsea Welch and Emily Vogelpohl still recovering from offseason knee injuries.

But it didn’t take long for Merriweather to realize that the winning culture in the program — which she helped create as an assistant under previous coach Mike Bradbury — was just as strong as ever.

RELATED: Merriweather, Welch earn Horizon League honors

“We had no idea what was going to happen. None. Then we get to practice, and the one thing I realized is they were going to work really, really hard. And I knew that would give us a chance,” she said.

“Not one day have I had to coach effort. Not one day have I had to convince them how awesome it is to win — because they already knew what that felt like. Having knocked those two things off allowed us to continue to move forward and develop the way we have this season.”

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Wright State will take a 23-7 record into its Horizon League tournament opener at 2 p.m. Saturday against the winner of a first-round game between Northern Kentucky and UIC. Both the men’s and women’s tourneys will be held Friday to Tuesday in Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

The Raiders won a share of their first regular-season conference crown this season and are seeded second behind co-champ Green Bay.

They’ll need three wins in four days to claim the program’s second NCAA tourney bid (and first since 2014). But Merriweather doesn’t want her players to look beyond their opener.

“Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, we just don’t really talk about (the NCAA tourney) — especially with a team that came in with so many unknowns,” she said. “The last thing they needed was pressure.

“We’re just going to continue the way we always have and think about it one step at a time. We hope we look up on Tuesday, and we’re warming up for a game. But I just think it’s a mistake to talk about it when you’ve got a tough game against Northern Kentucky or UIC.”

The Raiders kept the same offense from previous years while playing a different brand of defense under Merriweather. She didn’t have much choice. Richelle van der Keijl, a 6-foot-5 center, followed Bradbury to New Mexico, leaving the team without a rim protector.

Fielding a starting lineup with no one taller than 5-11, the Raiders have opted to apply defensive pressure all over the floor, and it helped them produce a 15-3 league record — notching three more league wins than the previous program high.

“We’re athletic and can move and trap ball screens,” Merriweather said. “We do things more aggressively to make up for our lack of height.”

Welch and Vogelpohl recovered to put together first-rate seasons — Welch averages a league-high 18.7 points, forward Lexi Smith 12.8 and Vogelpohl 10.9 points and a team-best 3.0 assists and 2.1 steals — and the Raiders have been fully healthy for about five weeks.

That means Merriweather can throw myriad lineups at opponents and keep them flummoxed.

“I love our versatility. I think we’ve got players that can all play multiple positions,” she said.

“It makes us tough to guard. There’s not one player you can sag off of and not risk being punished. We’re a streaky shooting team. Heck, I don’t even know which player is going to shoot well, so there’s no way the other TEAM can know.”

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