Positive momentum is flowing for the University of Mary basketball teams.
Keeping it going at home is the mission for the Marauders this weekend.
Joe Kittell's U-Mary men are coming off their first weekend sweep of the season. Rick Neumann, meanwhile, has the Marauder women still within shouting distance of a home playoff game in the opening round of the NSIC tournament.
The Marauders host Upper Iowa tonight and Winona State on Saturday. Both of Winona's teams own winning records, but Upper Iowa has struggled.
Road wins at Minnesota-Crookston and Bemidji State were a big boost for Kittell's young squad.
"We've been in a similar situation three or four times this season, but this time were able to keep our poise down the stretch," Kittell said of the weekend sweep. "Instead of hoping things happen, I felt like we stayed aggressive and just kinda willed ourselves to the victory."
The Marauders are 3-2 in their last five games after starting 0-8 in conference play.
Sophomore point guard Jaylan White has played a big role in the turnaround, including an 11-point, 7-assist, 0-turnover performance against Bemidji State.
"Jaylan's had a great month of January," Kittell said. "He's going from last year when he played about six minutes a game, to a more prominent role and there's an adjustment period for young players. But he's made positive strides, and he's also drawing the other team's top perimeter player defensively. He's really getting in their space and making them uncomfortable."
Kittell also had high praise for Trevor Zacher. The senior from Beulah is averaging 11 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game.
"Trevor made a bunch of winning plays," Kittell said.
Keith Hunter poured in 29 points in the win over the Beavers. Hunter leads the Marauders in scoring at 14.6 per game.
Kittell is hoping last weekend's success translates into a strong showing at the McDowell Activity Center, where the Marauders have just one win in nine games.
"We haven't been able to get over the hump at home. We're going to have a bunch of alumni here Saturday. I'm sure we'll have a good student section with everybody back in the swing of things this semester, and there's not a lot of high school games this weekend," Kittell said. "Hopefully a lot of people are able to come out and we're able to get over the hump and protect our home court."
The U-Mary women have played well at the MAC, winning seven of 10. Two victories this weekend would make things really interesting down the stretch. Relative to their chief competition, the Marauders have a more favorable schedule in jostling for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
"We've played well at home. We talk about wanting to own the MAC, being able to feed off our home crowd and really use that to our advantage," Neumann said. "As you kind of project out the rest of the season, if we're able to hold serve at home, which won't be easy by any means, but if we can do that, it will put us in a good position to be playing some pretty meaningful games late in the season."
The Marauders have won three of their last four games thanks in no small part to improved shooting at the stripe.
"For the longest time we weren't making free throws, at least not at the rate we need to be making them at," Neumann said. "But we've really seen our percentages climb up into that 75 and 80 percent area, and that really has made a significant difference.
"When you get into clutch possessions late in games, and if you're drawing fouls and getting to the line, if you're able to make free throws, it really increases your chances of winning the game."
The Marauders also have gotten stellar play from Cassie Askvig.
The sophomore from Minot is making a serious case for all-conference honors. The versatile 6-foot-2 Askvig is averaging 14.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists and is capable of defending, at a high level, a number of positions.
"Cassie's gone from about 20 minutes per game last season to 35 this season and her efficiency has improved, which is not something you typically see with that large of an increase in minutes," Neumann said. "There are a ton of analytical statistics, like what they use in the NBA, where Cassie is just off the charts. What it shows is just how much she's improved every area of her game. She is having a terrific season."
Gabbie Bohl leads the Marauders in scoring at 17.5 points per game, ranking third in the conference.
Neumann is hoping for more of the same from his team.
"I feel like we're playing our best basketball of the season," he said. "When you get down to the last eight games of the season you want to continue to take steps forward. You want to put yourself in position to be playing really impactful games late in the season. Right now, we're in position to do that and that's exciting."