Monmouth-Knox hoops rivalry will be staged twice in 12-day span

Barry McNamara
For the Register Mail

MONMOUTH, Ill. – It took two-thirds of the Midwest Conference basketball season to happen, but the Monmouth-Knox rivalry will finally be renewed Jan. 28 when the Fighting Scots and Prairie Fire meet in Galesburg.

Games times are 1 p.m. for the women and 3 p.m. for the men. The MWC neighbors will meet again less than two weeks later when they play Feb. 8 in Glennie Gym.

Both Monmouth teams enter contests Jan. 28 with very realistic hopes of reaching the MWC tournament, but it’s the Knox women who have the top season going at the moment.

Coach Kira Mowen’s squad is a perfect 9-0 in league play and enjoys a one-game margin over runner-up Ripon. With a league record of 5-5, the Scots, coached by Megan Jones, are in fourth place.

A year ago, after splitting their regular-season meetings, the Prairie Fire and Fighting Scots women both qualified for the postseason and met in the semifinals. Monmouth topped Knox 57-48, led by 23 points by MWC Player of the Year Josie Morgan, who’s enjoying an extra year of college ball this season at Cal State-Fullerton.

A player of the year candidate in this year’s contest is Knox senior Kristin Herndon, who has stepped up her game dramatically from a year ago, when she netted 6.6 points per game. The 6-footer has more than doubled that output to a team-high 13.4 points on 57% shooting, and she also leads Knox with 45 blocks and 8.3 rebounds per game.

“She’s a great athlete and a great shot blocker,” said Jones. “She’s going to be a tough matchup for us, for sure.”

“Kristin had all of this ability last year – it’s not like she grew any taller or started jumping any higher – but her confidence wasn’t there,” said Mowen. “She’s put in a lot of work on her post moves and playing with her back to the basket, and her confidence has really grown.”

Two other vital cogs for Knox a year ago are back and playing well, as junior Sarina Dacio has made a team-high 42 three-pointers and scores at a 12.4 clip, while fifth-year player Catessa Duran – an All-MWC selection last season – averages 10.7 points and 7.8 rebounds to go with a team-high 41 steals.

“They have pretty much their entire team returning from last year,” said Jones. “Plus, it’s their second year now with their new coach, so they’ve got a lot more experience together.”

“Any time anybody takes over a new program, whether it’s high school or college, there’s going to be growing pains along with the growth,” said Mowen. “But this year, we have a lot of returning players. They know me and I know them, and we’ve really started to hit our stride.”

Mowen also credited new assistant coach Brett Vana for helping to coordinate a strength and conditioning program in the fall that’s made a noticeable difference in the Fire’s players.

“It’s very sport-specific, and it’s allowed us to be the kind of defensive team we think we can be,” said Mowen, whose squad has held opponents to less than 60 points in seven of its nine MWC games.

Three Monmouth returners from a year ago – fifth-year player Tarae Warner and seniors Lily Harlan and Zoie Wall – all average around a dozen points per game and have each made around two dozen three-pointers on the season.

Assuming those players – who’ve provided “great senior leadership,” said Jones – all put in typical performances, a key for the Scots figures to be what type of contributions they’ll receive from several freshmen who’ll be playing in their first Monmouth-Knox game – including Audrey Law and Abingdon-Avon product Ashley Jones.

“Our freshmen are really coming into their own and playing with more confidence,” said their coach, who has also seen three other freshmen – Ella Goodrich, Madison Heisch and Allie Hoy – play more than 245 minutes.

Jones is a perfect example of coming into her own, as she’s netting 10.3 points per game during the 2023 portion of Monmouth’s schedule, including a collegiate-best 17 points against Lawrence on Jan. 2. Law is averaging nearly eight points per game in the new year. She scored a season-high 15 against Ripon while shooting 5-of-6 from both the field and the foul line.

Jones was asked how her freshmen might fare in the first of what could be many Monmouth-Knox matchups in their careers.

“We haven’t really talked about it yet,” she said on Tuesday, the day before her team traveled to meet Lake Forest. “I’m not sure, to be honest. We’ll talk a little about what to expect on Thursday and Friday.”

Mowen noted that Monmouth is a team that relies heavily on the three-point shot, so “defending that and stopping their driving lanes,” will be a key.

As a team, the Scots make more than six treys a game. By percentage, their top shooter beyond the arc is Harlan at 38.5%. Jadyn Mitchell, who was hitting at a 17-for-32 clip, suffered a season-ending injury after playing in Monmouth’s first nine games.

The Monmouth-Knox men’s game

On the men’s side, the two schools will be meeting Saturday for the 226th time, which is tied for 10th on the all-time Division III list. Monmouth holds a 132-93 edge in the series, which dates back to 1907.

Fighting Scots coach Todd Skrivseth is happy that his team currently sits in a playoff spot, two games behind league-leading Illinois College, and he’s been pleased with his team’s effort and energy, which has kept them competitive in nearly every game. The Scots lost 75-60 at league-leading Illinois College on Dec. 7, but in the 10 games since, they have six wins, as well as three losses by three points or less.

“Overall, it’s been a good season,” he said, “but we’d like a little more consistency in our performance.”

A consistent player for the Scots has been 6-foot-7 fifth-year forward Jordan Metcalf, who leads the team with averages of 14.6 points and 9.1 rebounds. Metcalf is shooting 59% from the field and has blocked a team-high 20 shots.

“It starts with the type of person he is,” said Skrivseth. “Jordan’s a tremendous person and a great teammate. He’s worked hard to get his game where it is. He’s a big presence down low for us both on offense and on defense, and we’ll definitely play through him.”

Surrounding Metcalf are several new freshmen and transfers. The latter group is headed by David Williams, who leads the team with 40 treys and is averaging 12.4 points per game. Freshman Kyle Taylor runs the point and has a team-high 50 assists to go with an 8.4 scoring average. Kendall Brasfield, one of the team’s few returners from last year, is scoring at a 12.7 clip and has a team-best 23 steals.

The Saturday game at Knox will be Monmouth’s third straight road contest, and the Scots are just 3-5 away from Glennie Gym.

“We’re a young team, and we’ve not played well on the road,” said Skrivseth. “There’s no question there’s always going to be an added element to a Monmouth-Knox game, and Knox is coming off their best win of the season at Lake Forest. I’m sure that’s given them some confidence.”

In that 71-70 victory over the Foresters, the Fire’s Isaiah Lockett added to his team-best three-pointer total by draining 5-of-8 shots from beyond the arc. He finished with 21 points and was joined in double digits by Jordan Rayner and Sean Gallery, who each scored 16, slightly above their season averages of 14.1 and 12.8, respectively.

Knox won again Wednesday night, topping Grinnell 101-95. It was the Fire’s third win in their last four contests, helping to offset tough back-to-back non-conference losses early in the season.

“We got off to a rough start,” said Knox coach Ben Davis. “We had a bunch of close losses, including a couple buzzer-beaters. But as the season’s gone on, we’ve gotten a little better and a little better with each game. Lately, we’ve done a lot better job of playing well down the stretch and closing games out.”

Knox topped Monmouth in both meetings a year ago, and Davis acknowledged it would be a challenge to post another victory or two against the Scots.

“Todd has them playing really well,” he said. “Offensively, they’ve got two or three guys who can really play and are tough matchups for anybody. And then they surround them with good shooters. Monmouth versus Knox is always fun, and it’s going to be a big game for us as we battle for a playoff spot.”

At 3-6 in league play, the Prairie Fire are two games out of fourth place with seven games to play.

In Monmouth’s action on Wednesday, the Scots used a 23-3 second-half run to top host Lake Forest 68-62. Former United High School star Declan Flynn led Monmouth with a career-high 21 points.