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Keplin, Zander make big leap playing D-I college basketball at UND

Keplin, Zander make big leap playing D-I college basketball at UND

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 Making the jump from high school to college is a major transition for almost any basketball player, particularly a freshman.

 Likewise, experiencing a coaching change or dealing with a life-changing pandemic can be stressful.

 So imagine the lives of University of North Dakota basketball players Lilly Keplin of Bismarck and Megan Zander of Mandan. They've experienced all three such situations since arriving in Grand Forks last summer.

 "Last year was a lot of learning. ... I think it will be a little bit smoother this year," Keplin noted.

  Zander said the UND players had a lot to process in mid-March.

 "Our season was over. It (the firing of head women's basketball coach Travis Brewster) came a couple of days after the tournament," Zander recalled. "A few days after that we went home for spring break and we never came back. ... We had all of our classes online. I'm taking a class online right now."

 Zander and Keplin weren't alone in getting thrown into the deep end of the pool as true freshmen.

 "We finished the season with six true freshmen," Zander said.

 As a result, UND fans can expect to see a young team on the floor again next season. At mid-summer the roster consisted of six sophomores, three juniors, three seniors, a redshirt freshman and two redshirt sophomores.

 Keplin, a 5-foot-7 guard, played 495 minutes in 30 games as a freshman, starting once. She averaged 7.0 points and 2.8 rebounds. She shot 33 percent from the floor and 68 percent from the free throw line. She connected on 45 3-pointers with 31 percent accuracy.

 Zander, a 5-10 sophomore, averaged 6.4 points and 3.3 rebounds while playing 435 minutes in 30 games, starting six. She shot 43 percent from the floor and 64 percent at the free-throw line and converted 23 of 65 3-pointers.

 UND finished 15-15 last season after reaching a peak of 12-5. North Dakota was 6-10 in Summit League play and fell 72-43 to South Dakota State in the first round of the league tournament. UND lost seven of its final eight games.

 Brewster left with a record of 128-120 in eight seasons as UND's head coach. His last winning season was in 2016-17. He has since joined the Idaho State women's basketball staff as an assistant coach.

 He was succeeded by Iowa native Mallory Bernhard, who was appointed interim head coach after six seasons as a UND assistant coach and one season as associate head coach.

 Keplin said Bernhard brings with her an element of continuity.

 "For sure. We're all excited about it. We have all our assistant coaches from last year, as well," Keplin observed. "... She's changed a couple of things, but we're really excited about what the (coming) season might hold."

 Zander said Bernhard and the rest of the staff have a head start due to their knowledge of the personnel.

 "That's what's nice. They know us. They know our strengths and what we need to work on. ... I think this was the best decision. She knows how we mesh together and work together ... and what style of basketball is best for us. 

"We all get along really well with the coaching staff. ... I think it's going to be good and interesting. I'm excited for the season. We're still going to run the floor and get the ball up the court."

While last season had its ups and downs, both Keplin and Zander say jumping into college basketball as true freshmen was, on the whole, a positive thing.

 "I think being able to play as much as I did and see the competition I did last year helped me to grow a lot as a player," Zander said.

  Keplin said it didn't take long to figure out that in college everyone on the floor can play.

 "It's the level of play. Everyone on the court can play defense, and they can bring something to the table on offense," she noted.

 Zander said there was clearly a learning curve as she adapted to college basketball.

 "The pace is a lot faster than I expected. ... And the size of the girls; in high school I was one of the taller girls. Now I'm kind of average," she said.

 Zander said defense is where she learned the most last season.

 "I really tried to work on my defense, and it really came along a lot more than I thought it was going to," she said.

After playing .500 ball with so many new players on the floor, Zander is eager to see what UND can do next season.

 "I think as a team we finished pretty well for how young we were. I think we can do a lot more this year with the confidence, experience and our team chemistry," she said. 

 Zander said playing with so many rookies was actually helpful for her.

 "We hung out in a big group, and that helped make things easier than being by myself," she said. "I think that helped make the whole college experience better."

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