The Kentucky Wesleyan College women’s basketball program is currently in its most successful stretch in school history, and quite frankly, the Panthers show no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Led by the husband-and-wife coaching tandem of Caleb and Nicole Nieman, KWC has burst onto the scene as a dominant force in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference. And here recently, the Panthers have been unbeatable at home.
KWC, currently 16-1 overall and 7-1 in league play, has won 29 consecutive games in Owensboro. Coming off of last year’s 24-8 campaign, in which Wesleyan earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Division II Tournament, the Panthers have simply kept the good times rolling.
It’s not like this is necessarily a new thing, either.
The Niemans, now in their 10th season guiding the Panthers, have made success a regular occurrence for their program.
Before the 2019-20 campaign began, they had put together the most productive nine-year stretch in school history at 170-87.
Under the Niemans, the Panthers have made the NCAA postseason three times. Before that, the program had never even been.
Need I go on?
And as much credit as the Niemans deserve for turning the Wesleyan women’s program into a winner, the players they’ve brought in have been equally impressive. It’s hard to win at the college level if you don’t have the personnel who buy in, and the Panthers have certainly bought in.
KWC runs a fast, up-tempo style of basketball in which everyone gets an opportunity. The Panthers score 81.3 points per game and lead the conference with nearly 20 assists per outing, often turning down good shots for even better ones.
It’s not uncommon to see 3-pointers raining down at the Sportscenter, especially since Wesleyan leads the G-MAC with 167 made 3s on a 36.7% clip.
KWC thrives in the open court, fueled by a defense that gives up only 52.5 points per game — 13 points better than the league’s second-best defense. The Panthers swipe away a conference-leading 11.2 steals per game, too.
Though Wesleyan’s roster is ultimately a little undersized, you would never know by the way they play. Despite being only 10th in the league in rebounds per game, KWC paces the G-MAC with a plus-6 rebound margin per contest.
“We don’t mind playing small and fast,” Nicole Nieman said. “As long as we’ve got hard-nosed kids, then we’ll be fine.”
They definitely have that.
It starts with former Breckinridge County High School star Lily Skye Grimes, who runs the point. The 5-foot-5 junior dynamo, who once treated the Sportscenter as her own personal playground during the 3rd Region Tournament, sets up her teammates with regularity and often pressures the opposition with a one-woman full-court press. She even hustles on her way back to the bench.
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Keelie Lamb, who once didn’t know what her college future would hold, chose KWC out of high school and has become one of the most versatile players in recent memory. With an ability to shoot, slash to the rim, pass for assists, rebound and defend, the 5-10 senior does it all.
Tahlia Walton, a 5-11 redshirt freshman in her first year with the program, is a scoring force off the bench.
Kaylee Clifford, a 5-11 junior guard, is a sharpshooter from beyond the arc, most notably from either corner.
The production doesn’t stop there.
To be a part of the Wesleyan program as a player, you need to be unselfish — it’s a hallmark of the team. That means sacrificing personal accolades for team goals, which has allowed nine players to average at least 16 minutes per game. On the flip side, nobody plays more than 25 minutes per outing.
Jordyn Barga, former Daviess County High School standout Emma Johnson and Leah Richardson are valuable contributors off the bench. Cali Nolot and Kaylee Duncan, a pair of guards, help steady the starting lineup, as well.
So, what’s been the key to the Panthers’ recent stretch? It’s simple, really: Focus.
A lot of teams talk about focusing on the next game, the next practice or even just the next play, but very few do it like Wesleyan does.
“We’ve got to come ready to play every night,” Nieman said. “Everybody’s going to come to play us. Every game matters for us. The next game on our schedule is the biggest game.”
That much is evident by Wesleyan’s winning streak at home, which began Feb. 22, 2018. Even when the Panthers had to play a game at the Woodward Health and Recreation Center on campus this season, it didn’t slow them down.
“We really like playing at home,” Nieman said. “We’ve got some great fans. We’d love for more fans to come out and join us at the Sportscenter, absolutely. We think you’re gonna get a good game to watch every night.”
Wesleyans fans should enjoy it, too.
The Panthers are experiencing a basketball renaissance of sorts, which has been well worth the price of admission.