It was a coaching move that paid instant dividends for the Creighton women's basketball team.
Jim Flanery decided he would try using fewer four-guard lineups, in part to get sophomore forward Alexis Akin-Otiko on the court more. Two games into the experiment, Akin-Otiko scored 13 points and led the Bluejays to a win over Wichita State that tightened the Missouri Valley title race.
“Lex came out and had the best game of her career, especially given the opponent,” Flanery said. “In the past, she's struggled against as good a team as Wichita State is, but she really stepped up. She definitely was critical to the outcome of that game.”
Akin-Otiko had been averaging fewer than 14 minutes a game until playing 25 against the Shockers. The 5-foot-11 forward from Bellevue West made 6 of 10 shots from the field and also grabbed eight rebounds in leading the Bluejays to a 56-46 victory that trimmed Wichita State's lead to one game with five to play.
Such a performance might leave some players feeling a bit giddy, but Akin-Otiko has tried to keep it in perspective.
“I usually try not to get too high or too low in general,” she said. “It was nice to have a good game, but I just try to stay focused and working hard every day.”
Flanery's decision to go with a bigger lineup came after road losses to Indiana State and Illinois State. In addition to getting more playing time for Akin-Otiko, Flanery also wanted to become more consistent with his use of 6-3 junior center Alyssa Kamphaus.
“I admit that it's been easier for me not to use them as much because we have more proven players along the perimeter,” Flanery said. “I just decided I had to be more consistent with giving Lex and Alyssa minutes, that I had to have a longer leash and not as quick of a hook.
“Kampy was one of our best players in October, but I don't know if I've always given her a chance to show that. And I felt that Lex was a couple of big games from really getting going for us.”
In the first game after Flanery's decision, Kamphaus posted the first double-double of her career in scoring 12 points and grabbing 11 rebounds a week ago in a win over Missouri State. She followed that effort with nine points and four rebounds against the Shockers.
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Akin-Otiko's 13-point performance against Wichita State was three shy of her career high, set against North Dakota State early in her freshman season. She wound up playing every game last season for the Bluejays, averaging 10.5 minutes and 3.5 points per game.
Akin-Otiko feels she's better prepared to contribute this season than last, mainly because she has a better handle on the mental side of the collegiate game.
“Physically, I'm in better shape ,” she said. “But the biggest thing is that mentally, I know what to expect and what the coaches are expecting from me.
“I've learned to push through when I'm tired. That's so important. Even when you're tired, you have to keep going hard because running in transition could get someone an open 3.”
Flanery said Akin-Otiko has made strides in cleaning up some of the turnover problems that plagued her as a freshman. She's also become solid in her decision-making.
“She's made some good progress as this year has gone on, but our whole staff just feels there is a lot more there,” Flanery said. “I felt great with the way she played on Saturday. She's a very coachable player that works hard and wants to get better.
“Hopefully, that game will be the starting point for her.”
Akin-Otiko hopes the win will begin a surge that carries Creighton to a regular-season title. The Bluejays play road games at Northern Iowa on Thursday and at Bradley on Saturday before closing the regular season with three straight home games.
Wichita State must play three of its final games of the road.
“It's good to be on the upside heading into this part of the season,” Akin-Otiko said. “Our goal coming into the season was to win the title, and it would be amazing to do that. It's been awhile since we've done that here.”
>> NOTES: Creighton has won the last four games against Northern Iowa and leads the series 34-16 … CU junior guard Carli Tritz needs five points to become the 24th player in program history to score 1,000 career points … Creighton continues to lead the nation in 3-point baskets per game (9.3) and is eighth nationally in 3-point percentage (.378).
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