Updated Wed, Jan 15, 2014 2:29 pm
The Rio Grande RedStorm (11-5, 4-1) is riding a four-game win streak as they host the No. 14 St. Catherine Patriots (10-5, 4-2) on Thursday evening at Newt Oliver Arena. With its best start in six years, Rio Grande looks to defeat its third straight nationally ranked opponent, a task it has never accomplished.
The RedStorm is currently unbeaten in the month of January and ranks in second place in the Mid-South Conference after being picked to finish ninth in the preseason rankings. With only one senior and no center in its starting lineup, Rio still places one spot ahead of the nationally-ranked Patriots.
Although it may seem unlikely for the RedStorm to beat yet another ranked team, they have shown no challenge is too big. Rio Grande has three consecutive wins in the MSC and has also went 2-0 on the same road trip, both of which have never been done under head coach Ken French until this season.
“I really like how we have come together as a team and have been playing in January,” said French. “Our challenge now is to become consistent and handle the adversity of league play.”
Fans may think and fear that the 13 games remaining for their beloved RedStorm is enough time for them to fall back into the mediocrity that they are used to. In three of the past four games, the fans’ skepticism was almost validated, as Rio has only won those three matchups by a combined four points.
The key this year, however, is that the RedStorm were able to put themselves in a winning position and have sealed the victory in all three games on last second foul shots. This team, led by senior point guard Jermaine Warmack, does not show any signs of slowing down, especially on the offensive end.
In fact, the RedStorm are offensively better than last year, despite a struggling season from its star sophomore D.D. Joiner. After winning Freshman of the Year in the MSC last season, Joiner is only averaging 8.4 points a game this season, which is down from his team-high average of 15.3 points in the 2012-13 campaign. Joiner is also averaging 16 percent from three-point territory, which is not even half as good as last year when he knocked down nearly 40 percent from behind the arc.
Filling the void for Joiner is sophomore transfer and Denmark native Phillip Hertz, who leads the team with 14.8 points per game. Even with Joiner’s struggles and lingering foot injury, Rio is averaging 11 more points a game than last season while distributing the ball much more effectively through Warmack, who ranks 24th in Division I of the NAIA in total assists with 66 through 16 games.
Although the RedStorm have improved in nearly every offensive category from last year, they will have to find an answer to the persistent defense of St. Catherine. The Patriots rank eighth in the NAIA with 11.5 steals a game and forward William Tolefree ranks ninth with 26 total blocks and is averaging just over 14 points.
“As with every conference game, this will be a war,” said French. “St. Cats is very talented and playing well right now. They are ranked fourteenth in the country and should probably be higher than that. We will have to have one of our best efforts of the season so far to give ourselves a chance in the end.”
This game is Rio’s first of two home games this week, as it looks to stay perfect in January. It’s been a slow start for teams in the MSC, with only four squads boasting a winning record in the conference. Out of those four teams, Rio is the only one that is not nationally ranked and a win against the Patriots would prove its legitimacy as a contender in the MSC.