They say everything happens for a reason.
Sometimes, that reason is hard to find. Other times, it’s obvious.
The University of Northern Colorado women’s basketball team was picked to finish atop the Big Sky in both the media and coaches polls after finishing 14-4 in conference play, 22-8 overall last season.
The reason? It’s not so hard to find.
“It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on our plate,” coach Kamie Ethridge said. “But we have been putting in countless hours of hard work to back it up.”
On the surface, the Bears are ranked where they are because they are really good — returning their top three scorers and bringing back 84.2 percent of their playing time from last season’s team.
That was a team that won 11-straight games last year and was on the verge of cracking the NCAA top-25 rankings.
And though they stumbled down the stretch, it was the most successful season the Northern Colorado women have had in recent history.
Digging a little deeper, Ethridge has put together a well-oiled machine that looked unselfish to a flaw at points last season.
And it all starts with the guard duo of junior Savannah Smith and senior Savannah Scott.
Smith averaged 15.9 points on 34.3 percent from beyond the arc and added 3.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists last season to warrant First Team All-Big Sky honors.
Her 80 three-pointers made also set a UNC single-season record.
Scott tallied 14 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting 45 percent from downtown to find a spot on the All-Big Sky second team.
Ethridge praised what both of them are able to do on the court, and added that Scott shows the most hustle of any player she’s ever coached.
And in a coaching career that spans 30 years and includes stops at the University of Texas, Vanderbilt and Kansas State, that’s saying something.
To anchor the paint, the Bears have last year’s leading rebounder, junior center Courtney Smith. She averaged 14 points on 60.1 percent from the field, while pulling down 5.9 boards per game.
On the other end of the floor, UNC also returns its best defender, senior Kianna Williams.
Williams averaged just under six points, while pulling down 4.7 rebounds and nabbing 2.1 steals last season.
The last returning starter for the Bears is sophomore Krystal Leger-Walker. She started all 30 games her true freshman season and led the team in assists, dishing out just under four per game.
Off the bench, the Bears return sophomore Abby Kain, junior Kirsten Kramer and sophomore Bridget Hintz who all averaged over six minutes per game last season.
And at the helm is Etheridge, who has a 57-37 record in her three years in Greeley after inheriting a team that finished 14-15 the year before her arrival.
The deeper someone looks into this UNC team, the more reasons they’ll find to like it.
They’ll also find that the team is more than up to the challenge of playing with a bullseye on its back.
“It’s a long way to go until March to back up the expectations put on us, but we are excited to face the challenge,” Ethridge said.
The Bears used a strong second half to pull away from CSU-Pueblo in their 68-51 exhibition win.
Scott led that charge with 23 points and five rebounds. Savannah Smith added 11 points and five assists.
Northern Colorado opens its regular season on Nov. 10 when they head to Chicago to take on DePaul.