The Merrimack Warriors women’s basketball team has only played eight games as an NCAA Division I program, but if their Northeast Conference foes aren’t worried yet, they should be.
Facing its first and only power-conference foe at Illinois tonight (8 p.m. ET, BTN+), Merrimack naturally seeks a statement victory the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the NEC this season. But even if the opposite happens, the Warriors remain poised to enter NEC play with a packed stat sheet that’s competitive with any team on their upcoming schedule — even defending-champion Robert Morris.
Merrimack is led by senior forward Denia Davis-Stewart, who notably opened her Division I career with a 31-point, 13-rebound, 12-block triple-double in the Warriors’ win at Massachusetts. Because the Warriors are in a transitional period until 2023, their statistics don’t exactly count yet. But however unofficial, Davis-Stewart’s 43 total blocks top the NCAA, her 5.4 blocks-per-game average is second in the country and she’s averaging a team-high 16.3 points and 11.9 rebounds per game.
The Warriors’ other star is sophomore guard Kate Mager, who is a near-constant presence on the court alongside Davis-Stewart. Mager is the team’s go-to target from three, converting 45% of her shots from distance. Like Davis-Stewart, Mager had a big outing against UMass, tying her career-high with six made 3-pointers.
Despite this early success, Merrimack still has to prove its worth against NEC opponents. Its relatively weak non-conference schedule, though, can’t totally obscure the fact that it’s leading the NEC in several key categories, including scoring defense, free throw percentage, 3-point percentage and scoring margin.
In a less-than-cheery “welcome to Division I,” the Warriors were picked to finish 11th (of 11 teams) in the conference preseason poll. But at 5-3 entering tonight’s game, the team’s third-to-last until NEC play begins, Merrimack has an excellent chance to enter the conference season with a winning record. (Notwithstanding, two of its counted wins so far came against non-Division I opponents.)
Coming out of non-conference play above .500 isn’t necessarily an indicator of future conference success, though — just ask perennial favorites Robert Morris Colonials and Saint Francis U Red Flash.
In the last three seasons, the Colonials have finished non-conference play a combined 15-18, while putting up a 46-8 record in conference play that resulted in two NCAA Tournament bids. The Red Flash got the NEC’s automatic NCAA bid in 2018, a season where they went 5-7 in non-conference play and 16-2 against NEC opponents.
Scheduling tough is routine for this pair. Robert Morris is 4-4 in the young season, with recent games against Xavier, TCU and Youngstown State and a meeting with James Madison coming on December 29. Meanwhile, Saint Francis U (2-6) has played — and lost to — Virginia Tech, No. 22 West Virginia, Florida Gulf Coast and South Florida.
Merrimack’s opponent tonight, Illinois, has faced one NEC opponent this season, notching a 69-55 win over Bryant on November 24. In many respects, the Illini and the Warriors are exceedingly similar. They both feature four starters who average at least nine points per game, and both teams average around 40 rebounds per game (Illinois has the advantage on the offensive glass, Merrimack on the defensive glass) and dish around 15 assists per game.
The Warriors will look to maintain their massive advantage at the free throw line, where they’ve made 80.8% of their shots this season to Illinois’ 64.4%. To aid this success, they draw about 15.5 personal fouls a game, a mark they should have no trouble meeting against Illinois.
Otherwise, offensively, the Warriors fall short from the floor (36.6% shooting to Illinois’ 40.8%). But with both teams fairly strong defensively, holding opponents well under 40% shooting, it could be a low-scoring affair anyway. Davis-Stewart will be a notable threat inside for Merrimack, as her 43 blocks are more than three times as many as Illinois has allowed all season. She’s also averaging an NEC-best 11.9 rebounds per game, most of which came on the defensive glass.
But the 6-2 Illini won’t go away quietly, especially at home. And in a season where gaining as much experience as possible is key for Merrimack, enduring a humbling loss is very possible. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to gain against Illinois — more that reality suggests the Big Ten home team has the advantage.
In the meantime, Merrimack can take a note from one-year Division I veteran Cal Baptist’s impressive performance against then-No. 3 Stanford last month and simply give Illinois a hard time. The prospect of an upset can’t be ruled out until the final buzzer, after all.