“Ever since I’ve worked here — and it’s how we played at Cincinnati (she was a player from 1997-2001) — we’ve tried to grind it out and play with a lot of toughness. Rebounding has as much to do with toughness as it does athleticism or size. It’s a mentality, and we work hard on it every day in practice.”
It certainly shows. The Raiders (16-7) have out-rebounded their foes in 21 straight games, and they have the sixth-best rebound margin in the country at plus-12.5 per game.
Limiting second-chance points also has helped the defense. They’re giving up a league-low 55.7 per game.
They’ll take that bruising approach into the league semifinals at Indiana Farmers Coliseum at 11 a.m. Monday against sixth-seeded Cleveland State (11-8).
The top-seeded Raiders beat CSU twice handily in the regularseason, but the Vikings pulled off a 63-52 upset in the quarterfinals last March in the Nutter Center.
No. 2 Milwaukee (19-6) faces No. 5 IUPUI (14-4), the unanimous preseason favorite in a vote of the coaches, in the other semi at 2 p.m.
The finals are at noon Tuesday on ESPNU.
Though the tourney doesn’t seem to have a clear favorite, the Raiders may have the freshest team in the field. Ten players have averaged at least 10 minutes per game, and nine reached double-digits in the quarterfinals against Northern Kentucky.
All-league guard Angel Baker, who is fourth in the league in scoring with a 17.3 average, needs to be on the floor as much as possible and plays 33.9 minutes per game. But the next-highest average belongs to Destyne Jackson at 25.2.
“I love playing that way,” Merriweather said. “No. 1, it keeps everybody engaged and invested. … We have to make it so everyone comes to practice knowing they’re still competing for an opportunity to get in the game — even in March.”
Merriweather also likes how it makes her team tough to scout because of multiple position groups. Plus, it sends a message to recruits that playing time is readily available.
Mostly, though, it’s had a positive impact on the Raiders’ intensity level.
“We want them to play so hard and fast and not keep anything in reserve. We want them to know, ‘You give us the hardest 2½ or three minutes you have, and then we have a sub for you.’”
But while the Raiders want to relive the feeling they had two years ago when they won the event and played in the NCAA tourney, the season, in Merriweather’s eyes, has already been a success.
“I think the important thing is keeping everybody’s spirits high and confidence high — keeping this sense of gratitude that a lot of people didn’t get to play at all this season,” she said. “We made it this far, and we’re going to embrace the opportunity.”
Wright State vs. Cleveland State, 11 a.m., ESPN+