Vikings Kick Off 2024 with First Big Sky-Summit Challenge Game Wednesday at Kansas City


Complete game notes (PDF)
 

TIPOFF

A new year brings new opportunity. The Portland State women’s basketball team will take that to heart in 2024 as the Vikings look to snap out of a recent skid when they play at Kansas City Wednesday (5 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. CT tipoff).
 
Wednesday’s game not only represents a chance for the Vikings to snap their four-game losing streak. It also offers the Vikings a chance to find themselves again outside of Big Sky Conference play. The game against the Roos will be the Vikings’ first ever game in the new Big Sky-Summit Challenge. The two conferences – the Big Sky Conference and Summit League – will compete for a trophy across 36 total games. In addition to Wednesday’s road game, the Vikings will also host St. Thomas as part of the challenge this coming Saturday at 2 p.m.
 
Mid-season tournaments like the Big Sky-Summit Challenge have sparked other teams in the past. Think Lionel Messi and Inter Miami winning the 2023 Leagues Cup, or Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers winning the first NBA In-Season Tournament. The Vikings won’t be playing for a trophy themselves like those teams, but the competition for a league-wide trophy for the Big Sky Conference might help the Vikings right the ship.
 
The Vikings have done a good job responding to their deficiencies from game-to-game recently. After San Francisco out-rebounded the Vikings 25-to-9 in the second half on Dec. 16, the Vikings won the rebounding battle in their next two games against Portland and Eastern Washington. Then, after Portland shot 64.0 percent against the Vikings in the second half on Dec. 20, the Vikings held Eastern Washington to 37.3 percent from the floor on Dec. 28, a season low for a Viking opponent. Additionally, after the Vikings went a combined 12-of-48 (.250) from three-point range in their previous three games, they shot 9-of-24 (.375) against Idaho Saturday.
 
But the Vikings have also been a victim of a cruel roulette game during their losing streak. Just as they shore up something that hurt them in the previous game, another facet will go against the Vikings.
 
The Vikings’ turnovers against Eastern Washington and Idaho last weekend serves as one example of that. The Vikings took care of the ball against one of the better defenses they’ll see this season in their game the University of Portland on Dec. 20. The Pilots came into the game forcing over 20 turnovers per game, and yet the Vikings only gave up 13 to the Pilots while forcing 17 of their own. But the Vikings followed that with a minus-13 turnover margin against Eastern Washington last Thursday, then a minus-6 margin against Idaho. As a result, the Eagles outscored the Vikings 23-11 in points off turnovers – a key stat in what ended up a 10-point game – while Idaho outscored the Vikings 20-11 in what ended up a six-point game.
 
But that’s where the optimism of a new year comes in. The fact that the Vikings have improved in various areas gives the sense that if everything comes together for the Vikings in a game, that’ll get the ball rolling again (or dropping again, New Year’s pun intended).
 
No opponent will make that easy on the Vikings, of course. Kansas City will be no different in that regard. Rebounding, one of the Vikings’ weaknesses at times this season, represents one of the Roos’ strengths. They rank second in The Summit League in total rebounds (40.3) and offensive rebounds (14.3) per game, as well third in rebounding margin (+4.47). The Roos also rank highly defensively within The Summit League. They stand second in the league in scoring defense (62.2), field goal percentage defense (.379) and blocks per game (4.0). They also stand third in three-point field goal percentage defense (.294).
 
They do all that while sharing the ball. Only one player – Nariyah Simmons – averages in double figures, and then only just as Simmons leads the Roos with 10.0 points per game. However, seven different players average at least 5.0 points per game, while the Roos rank fourth nationally with 34.3 points per game from their bench players.
 
The Roos’ defensive numbers will be of particular interest Wednesday. The Vikings are 5-1 this season when they score 60 or more points, but 0-6 when they fail to hit the 60-point benchmark. In their five wins this season, the Vikings are 72.2 points per game, but just 52.1 points per game in their seven losses.
 
The Vikings are averaging 57.5 points per game during their four-game losing streak. In those four games, the Vikings are averaging just 8.75 assists per game while assisting on only 41.7 percent of their field goals.
 
The Vikings got a boost against Idaho with the return to form of Alaya Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald gave the Vikings a second threat from the outside to go with leading scorer Esmeralda Morales, and the pair responded with four three-pointer each against the Vandals.
 
The Vikings have also gotten strong games from post players Rhema Ogele and Lana Wenger recently. Ogele recorded her third double-double with 14 points and a career-high 14 rebounds against Eastern Washington, while Wenger set a career high with 13 points during the same game.
 
The Vikings couldn’t get over the hump in either game, though. It’s what makes turning the page to 2024 such a welcomed opportunity for the Vikings.
 
A new start means everyone can get on the same page. And once everything gels together, it’ll be a new Viking team for a new year.
 

GAME #13: PORTLAND STATE (5-7) vs. KANSAS CITY (7-8)

GAME DETAILS: Wednesday, Jan. 3, 5 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. CT, Kansas City, Mo. (Swinney Center)
LIVE STATS | LIVE VIDEO
SCOUTING KANSAS CITY: The Kansas City Roos followed five straight wins with three straight losses going into Wednesday’s meeting with the Vikings. The three recent losses include an 0-2 start to Summit League play, as they fell 76-61 to Oral Roberts Friday and 66-57 to St. Thomas Sunday. The Roos were picked to finish ninth in The Summit League during the preseason. They’re coming off a 9-23 record a year ago when they also went 3-15 in league play. Last year was the Roos’ first under head coach Dionnah Jackson-Durrett, who spent the previous seven season as first an assistant, then associate head coach under Vic Schaefer at Mississippi State and then Texas. The Kansas City coaching staff also features associate head coach Velaida Harris, who played for the Vikings from 1989-93 and previously coached at Weber State. Statistically, the Roos have led with their defense so far this season. They rank second in The Summit League in scoring defense (62.2), field goal percentage defense (.379) and blocks per game (4.0). They also stand third in three-point field goal percentage defense (.294). Additionally, the Roos rank highly in rebounding, as they stand second in their conference in total rebounds (40.3) and offensive rebounds (14.3) per game, as well as third in rebounding margin (+4.47). Individually, only one player – Nariyah Simmons – averages in double figures, and then only just as Simmons leads the Roos with 10.0 points per game. However, seven different players average at least 5.0 points per game, while the Roos rank fourth nationally with 34.3 points per game from their bench players. Dominique Phillips ranks second on the team with 9.3 points per game, while Alayna Contreras stands third with 8.3 per game. Outside of scoring, Ifunanya Nwachukwu ranks eighth in The Summit League with 5.77 rebounds per game, while Tamia Ugass stands tied for 15th with 5.0 per game. Nwachukwu also leads the Roos and ranks sixth in The Summit League with 1.00 blocks per game. Lisa Thomas leads the Roos with 2.7 assists per game.
ALL-TIME SERIES: The Roos have won both previous matchups with the Vikings, including the most recent meeting, an 87-69 Kansas City win during the 2019 Preseason WNIT. Both previous meetings have come in Kansas City. The Roos also beat the Vikings, 69-55, on their home court on Jan. 21, 1990.
 

STORYLINES/STREAKS/RECORDS

  • The Vikings lost their fourth straight game Saturday, falling 61-55 to Idaho. The Vikings tied the game at 55-all with 48.3 seconds remaining, but the Vandals scored the final six points of the game.
  • The Vikings went just 1-5 during the month of December after going 4-2 in November.
  • The combined turnovers margin for the Vikings against Eastern Washington and Idaho was minus-19 last weekend. The Eagles outscored the Vikings 23-11 in points off turnovers as a result, while the Vandals outscored them 20-11.
  • Idaho outscored the Vikings 26-8 in the paint Saturday. Ten of the Vikings’ 12 opponents this season have outscored the Vikings in the paint, while seven of those 10 have done so by at least 10 points.
  • The Vikings broke out of a slump from three-point range against Idaho Saturday. After going 12-of-48 (.250) combined from three-point range over their previous three games, the Vikings went 9-of-24 (.375) against the Vandals. Alaya Fitzgerald and Esmeralda Morales both hit four three-pointers in the game.
  • The Vikings are 5-1 when they score 60 points or more and 0-6 when they don’t. They’re averaging 72.2 points per game in their five wins, but just 52.1 points per game in their seven losses.
  • Esmeralda Morales leads the Big Sky Conference with 19.4 points per game, an average that also ranks her 36th in the NCAA. She’s scored in double figures in all 12 games, while she’s topped 20 points in six of the 12. Her 19.4 points per game is the best scoring average by a Viking since Sherri Stemple averaged 19.7 ppg during the 1992-93 season.
  • Besides scoring, Esmeralda Morales also leads the conference while ranking sixth nationally with 3.42 three-pointers made per game. Morales has hit at least three shots from three-point range in nine of the Vikings’ 12 games this season.
  • Rhema Ogele leads the Big Sky Conference in field goal percentage (.538). That’s a career-best shooting mark for her, while she’s also averaging career bests in points (11.4) and rebounds (6.4) per game. She’s scored in double figures in six of her 10 appearances this season, including three double-doubles.
  • In her second game back from an injury that held her out for seven games earlier in the season, Alaya Fitzgerald scored a season-high 17 points while tying a career high with four three-pointers Saturday against Idaho.
  • Mia ‘Uhila is averaging career bests for points (9.8), rebounds (5.2) and assists (3.3) per game this season.
  • The two most common areas of struggle for the Vikings have been field goal percentage defense and rebounding. The Vikings rank ninth in the Big Sky in field goal percentage defense (.441), and 10th in all three of the four rebounding categories between rebounds per game (31.6), offensive (9.92) and defensive (21.7) rebounds per game.
  • The Vikings rank fifth in the Big Sky with 8.33 steals per game as a team. Freshman Joy Haltom ranks second in the conference individually with 2.27 steals per game, an average that also ranks her 82nd nationally. However, after averaging 11.0 steals per game through their first five games, they’re averaging just 6.4 steals per game over their last seven games.
  • Lana Wenger has set career highs for points in three of the Vikings’ last six games, including last Thursday with 13 points against Eastern Washington. In the team’s last six games, Wenger is averaging 8.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 53.7 percent from the field.
  • Cinco McCartney set a season high with 11 rebounds against Portland on Dec. 20. She’s averaging a career-best 5.30 rebounds per game, ranking her 14th in the Big Sky Conference. McCartney sat both games last weekend with a knee injury last season, however.
  • The Vikings have been bitten by the injury bug so far this season. Out of the six players who have started games for the Vikings, all six haven’t been healthy at the same time since the team’s season opener at UC Davis. Rhema Ogele missed the Vikings’ games against San Diego and Warner Pacific on Nov. 11 and 14, respectively. Alaya Fitzgerald, meanwhile, had missed every game since Nov. 14 before returning Thursday. Cinco McCartney, meanwhile, missed both games last weekend. All 15 players have not been dressed for any game this season.
  • Big Sky coaches and media members picked the Vikings to finish fifth in the conference in their respective preseason polls.
  • The Vikings set a program record with eight more conference wins last season than they won the previous year. That was one off the best year-to-year turnaround in Big Sky Conference history.
  • The Vikings advanced to the Big Sky semifinals last season for the first time since the 2018-19 season. The Vikings beat Idaho State, 73-58, in the first round of last year’s tournament, then upset second-seeded and defending-champion Montana State, 77-65, in the quarterfinals.
  • The Vikings returned four starters and nine letterwinners off last year’s team. That group includes All-Big Sky second-team selection Esmeralda Morales, as well as third-leading scorer Alaya Fitzgerald and leading rebounder Rhema Ogele. Cinco McCartney, who averaged 6.0 points and 4.9 rebounds per game, while starting 30 of 31 games also returns.
  • The Vikings have more upperclassmen (8) than they do underclassmen (7) for the first time since the 2018-19 season.
  • The Vikings made the program’s first international trip with a tour of Costa Rica in September. The Vikings played two exhibitions against members of the Costa Rica National Team during the trip, winning both.

 

STEPPING UP AS UPPERCLASSMEN

The four juniors who have been with the Vikings since they were freshman – Alaya Fitzgerald, Esmeralda Morales, Rhema Ogele and Mia ‘Uhila – have all elevated their game now as upperclassmen. Morales, Ogele and ‘Uhila are all averaging career bests in the scoring column, and all three have done so by wide margins. Morales is averaging 19.4 points per game, making her the Big Sky Conference’s scoring leader so far and giving her close to four points per game more than she averaged as a sophomore (15.8). Ogele has more than doubled her previous best scoring average as she’s scoring 11.4 points per game this year after averaging just 5.3 points per game as a sophomore. ‘Uhila has increased her scoring average to 9.8 points per game, up from 6.1 as a sophomore. Both Ogele and ‘Uhila have seen increases in other respects as well. Ogele is shooting a career-best 53.8 percent from the floor, giving her the Big Sky lead in the category. She’s also averaging a career-best 6.40 rebounds per game, ranking her 10th in the conference. ‘Uhila, meanwhile, is averaging career bests for rebounds (5.2) and assists (3.3) per game. Her 3.33 assists per game rank her sixth in the Big Sky Conference this season. Fitzgerald would be on a similar trajectory if not for an injury she suffered against Warner Pacific on Nov. 14. She showed her potential with a season-high 17 points Saturday against Idaho while tying a career high with four three-pointers.
 

THREE-POINT SHOOTING

The Vikings broke out of a recent slump from three-point range against Idaho Saturday. After shooting a combined 12-of-48 (.250) from deep against San Francisco, Portland and Eastern Washington, the Vikings went 9-of-24 (.375) from beyond the arc against the Vandals. The return to form of Alaya Fitzgerald undoubtedly helped. She tied her career high with four triples against the Vandals, freeing up leading scorer Esmeralda Morales to hit four three-pointers herself. The Vikings’ recent dip still means they rank sixth only within the Big Sky Conference in three-point field goal percentage (.331) and makes per game (6.67). Morales has been outstanding individually as she leads the Big Sky with 3.42 three-pointers made per game, an average that also ranks her sixth nationally in the category. Additionally, Morales ranks fourth in the Big Sky and 67th nationally in percentage, making 40.6 percent of her shots from beyond the arc. No other Viking is ranked among the Big Sky leaders, but Fitzgerald would if she hadn’t missed seven straight games with an injury. Fitzgerald has only played in five games due to her early season injury but is averaging career bests for makes per game (2.2) and percentage (.355). Mia ‘Uhila also has 11 makes from deep this season while shooting a career-best 32.4 percent from beyond the arc.
 

SWIPING LEFT AND RIGHT

The Vikings head into Wednesday’s game against Kansas City ranked fifth in the Big Sky Conference with 8.33 steals per game. Multiple players have contributed to the strong perimeter defense. Freshman Joy Haltom has been a revelation for the Vikings in that regard, as she ranks second in the Big Sky and 82nd nationally with 2.27 steals per game despite being in her first collegiate season. Mia ‘Uhila and Esmeralda Morales, meanwhile, join Haltom in the top 15 of the Big Sky, as they rank eighth and tied for 10th with 1.58 and 1.50 steals per game, respectively. The Vikings haven’t recorded as many steals of late, however. After recording 10 or more steals in four of their first five games of the season, the Vikings have averaged just 6.4 steals per game over their last seven games.
 

AROUND HERE, WE SPELL M-V-P AS E-S-M-E

Esmeralda Morales has proven her preseason Big Sky MVP credentials in the early going of the season. She’s scored 20+ points in six of the Vikings’ first 12 games, including four of the Vikings’ seven home games. It’s typically been an efficient showing from Morales when she goes over 20 points, too. In her six 20-point games, Morales is a combined 40-of-80 (.500) from the field and 26-of-49 (.531) from three-point range. Morales heads into Wednesday’s game against Kansas City leading the Big Sky Conference and ranked 35th nationally with 19.4 points per game. Morales’ 19.4 points per game is the best scoring average by a Viking since Sheri Stemple averaged 19.7 points per game during the 1992-93 season. Besides scoring, Morales also leads the Big Sky in three-pointers made per game (3.42) and free throw percentage (.881), numbers that rank her sixth and 36th nationally in both categories, respectively. Morales is no stranger to being ranked among the statistical leaders, though. She’s ranked in the top 15 of the Big Sky in eight different statistical categories, a season after she was ranked in nine different categories. Besides the three categories she leads, Morales also ranks among the conference leaders in field goal percentage (5th, .429), assists per game (T-11th, 2.50), steals per game (T-10th, 1.50), three-point field goal percentage (4th, .406) and minutes played per game (2nd, 36.2). At the same time, Morales is also moving up the career rankings at Portland State. She became the 21st member of the 1,000-point club at Portland State during the Vikings’ game against Bushnell on Dec. 12. Additionally, Morales ranks eighth in career scoring average (15.1), fourth in free throw percentage (.849), and seventh in both three-point field goals made (165) and attempted (445). Her 21 points against San Francisco on Dec. 16 also marked her 21st career 20-point game, ranking her eighth all time.
 

MIA OOOOOO-HE-LUH (‘UHILA)

Mia ‘Uhila has sparked some “oooo’s” from fans at times this season. She scored a career-high 20 against Oregon on Dec. 9, and is averaging career bests for points (9.8), rebounds (5.2) and assists (3.3) per game. She heads into Wednesday’s game against Kansas City ranked in the top 15 of the Big Sky in six different statistical categories. She ranks highest in assists where she stands sixth in the Big Sky with 3.33 per game. She also ranks among the conference leaders in free throw percentage (12th, .714), steals per game (8th, 1.58), assist-to-turnover ratio (8th, 0.85), defensive rebounds per game (10th, 4.17) and minutes played per game (9th, 30.9).
 

RHEMA REMADE

Junior center Rhema Ogele signaled that she’s leveled up over the offseason with a standout showing in the team’s season opener against UC Davis. Ogele set a career high with 24 points on 12-of-14 shooting while adding 11 rebounds for what was then only her third career double-double. Ogele posted her second double-double of the season in the Vikings’ 72-61 win over Fresno State on Nov. 29, finishing with 19 points and 10 rebounds. She added a third last Thursday, leading the Vikings with 14 points to go with a career-high 14 rebounds against Eastern Washington. Ogele heads into Wednesday averaging career bests for points (11.4) and rebounds (6.4) per game while shooting a career-best 53.8 percent from the floor. Ogele’s 53.8 percent shooting gives her the Big Sky lead in the category while she also ranks 55th nationally. Additionally, Ogele ranks 10th in the Big Sky in rebounds per game (6.4) and 14th in points (11.4) per game. Ogele also ranks tied for sixth in the Big Sky in offensive rebounds per game (2.50) and 13th in defensive rebounds per game (3.90).
 

YEAR-TO-YEAR IMPROVEMENTS

At 8-10 in Big Sky play last season, the Vikings improved their conference win total by eight after going 0-20 the year before. That’s the best year-to-year turnaround in conference wins in program history and tied the second-best turnaround in Big Sky Conference history. The conference record stands at +9, which four different teams have accomplished, most recently North Dakota during the 2013-14 season. The Vikings also improved their overall win total by 10 last season, the second-best year-to-year improvement in overall wins in program history.
 
Best Year-to-Year Improvements in Conference Wins (Big Sky History)
+Total     Team                             Year
+9           Idaho State                   1996-97
+9           Montana State              2000-01
+9           Idaho State                   2003-04
+9           North Dakota                2013-14
+8           Montana State              2019-20
+8           Southern Utah              2021-22
+8           Sacramento State         2021-22
+8           Portland State              2022-23
+7           CSUN                             1997-98
+7           Eastern Washington     2009-10
+7           Montana                       2012-13
 

SEASON HIGHLIGHTS

Dec. 30, 2023, Idaho 61, Portland State 55: In just her second game back from an injury that held her out of seven games early in the season, Alaya Fitzgerald scored a season-high 17 points while tying a career high with four three-pointers against Idaho.
Dec. 12, 2023, Portland State 69, Bushnell 60: Esmeralda Morales hit the 1k career scoring mark in the second quarter while leading the Vikings with 26 points. Rhema Ogele (13 points) and Lana Wenger (12 points) joined Morales in double figures.
Nov. 29, 2023, Portland State 72, Fresno State 61: The Vikings won back-to-back games for the first time this season while shooting a season-high 57.1 percent from the field. Rhema Ogele recorded her second double-double of the season (19 points, 10 rebounds), while Esmeralda Morales led all scorers with 21 points for her fourth 20-point game of the season.
Nov. 25, 2023, Portland State 75, Seattle U 68: Esmeralda Morales scored a season-high 27 points while Mia ‘Uhila (16 points) and Rhema Ogele (11) joined her in double figures. The Vikings made 11 three-pointers as a team and swiped 11 steals.
Nov. 14, 2023, Portland State 74, Warner Pacific 62: The Vikings went 13-of-24 (.542) from three-point range and swiped 17 steals against the Knights.
Nov. 9, 2023, Portland State 71, UC Davis 62: Rhema Ogele led the Vikings to a road win in their season opener with a career-high 24 points on 12-of-14 shooting from the field. The win was the Vikings’ sixth straight in their season opener.
 



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