It compiled a 10-1 record through the first half of the rugged NSIC, but the second time through one of the country's top Division II conferences will be even tougher for the Winona State University men's basketball team.
That was apparent this past weekend as Wayne State, then Augustana tested the Warriors on their home court but failed to find a way to beat them. If it wasn't before, league-leading Winona State (17-2, 12-1) will be the targeted team from here on out.
That's not a newsflash for Warriors' coach Mike Leaf.
Leaf, in his 14th season, is relentless when it comes to finding ways for his team to improve. Winona State has won six consecutive games, but that winning streak means nothing to the Warriors next opponent, Minnesota State University Mankato. On Friday, the Mavericks will attempt to become the first team to beat Winona State on its home court, where the Warriors are 10-0 this season.
One thing, Leaf says, Winona State must do better is build on leads once they get them.
"Sometimes we build ourselves a lead and what we have to learn to do is take it a possession at a time like it is 0-0. When we get ourselves an eight-point lead, we can't give that up," Leaf said. "We have to grow on that. That is something we are missing right now.
"We are bringing some guys off the bench to spell us. There is no question Jon Walburg can knock down that 3, and Zander (Culver) has been able to come on and be a spark. We have to make it so if we build that eight-point lead, those players that are coming in have to realize it is like a 0-0 game. You have to do your job to build a little bit more of a lead."
The Warriors bench has been a big contributor this season. Joel Armstrong has been a high-energy player who has played well defensively, been a big plus in rebounding and even added some points when he spells Clayton Vette, the team's leading scorer at 16.1 ppg. Kellen Taylor (5.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg) has posed matchup problems because of his size and ability to score inside and out.
Walburg, at 9.2 ppg, hasn't necessarily provided the scoring punch he has in the past, but his rebounding and defense have been equally important. His 3-point shooting has been clutch, as he leads the team in made 3-pointers with 28 (28 of 78). Culver may be the most improved Warrior, as he has been a threat from the 3-point line (20 of 45), where he is shooting a team-best 44 percent. Another key for Culver is his ability to drive to the hoop.
"In the game (against Augustana) they were playing off of him and he hit that nice baseline jumper for us. That is something he has to do more of," Leaf said of Armstrong, who is averaging just 2.2 ppg and 2.1 rpg, but has come up with some critical rebounds and points.
"Joel, he comes out, and he really gets on that perimeter and he does such a great job of setting one screen, a second screen, a third screen and he is really working to get guys open. I don't know if he realizes it, but by him doing so, he is wearing out those defenders who have to chase, chase, chase. It takes a wear on their bodies. That is Joel's role and he does a nice job of it."
Leaf has pretty much settled into a nine-man rotation with Vette, Grant Johnson, C.J. Erickson, Humphrey and Taylor Cameron generally starting, with Walburg, Taylor, Culver and Armstrong the first players off the bench.
Humphrey said the team's depth is a key, and he is confident in whoever is on the floor.
"We are always confident. Even going back to the Colorado trip when we lost to Metro (State), we were still a confident bunch. We are able to practice hard, work hard, work on the things we need to. Confidence is not a problem with this team," said Humphrey, who is averaging 8.4 ppg and 2.6 rpg.
"We are confident group and it's just going out onto the court and proving it."
They will get another chance at 8 p.m. Friday.