It was one of the worst feelings Mackenzie Taylor has had in her college basketball career.
Playing on the road in December of last season, she and her Wright State teammates had battled back and forth with Illinois in a game that saw a dozen lead changes.
With 3:32 left, Wright State slipped in front again 68-67. But down the stretch the Raiders were bullied by their Big Ten hosts, who outscored them 9-4 and won, 76-72.
In the dressing room after the game Taylor said something that Raiders’ head coach Katrina Merriweather has not forgotten:
“We all met afterward and she told the team ‘I cost us the game today…and it won’t ever happen again.’
“And you know what? It was her last poor defensive effort.”
Taylor hasn’t forgotten that game either.
“It just felt like anyone I was guarding that day, they were able to score easily on me.
“And afterward we were in the dressing room and Trina went around the room and had each of us say what we thought and what we could have done better.
“I was honest. I felt like I killed us on defense. Those we my exact words.
“Sitting there right then, I knew that I never wanted to feel what I was feeling again. I would do everything in my power not to have to go through this again.”
Sunday afternoon at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, her feelings hit the opposite end of the spectrum.
Playing the best game of her college career, the 5-foot-6 junior guard led the Raiders to an 83-61 victory over Cleveland State in the quarterfinals of the Horizon League Tournament.
On offense she scored a career-high 22 points, making six of 11 three point attempts. The half dozen treys tied her mark for most in a game.
Considering her past, her defensive effort against the Vikings was even more impressive. Tasked with thwarting CSU’s Ashanti Abshaw – who averages 19.4 points per game – she limited the All Horizon League first team selection to 4-for-15 shooting and 12 points.
The other two times Cleveland State and WSU played this season – the Vikings won both and Abshaw scored 23 and 31 points.
Not only has Taylor transformed herself – “she’s right, she couldn’t guard her shadow when she got here,” Merriweather said – but she has done so by battling ongoing injuries.
“I’ve twisted my ankle seven times since I’ve been here,” she said. “I twisted it so bad at Youngstown State they thought I had fractured it.
“And my back is pretty messed up, too. My sacrum sets a little different than most people’s and it pinches a nerve as little bit.”
“I’ve been getting injections to limit the pain.”
After Sunday’s game though she felt happy and relieved and most of all she felt some pride.
“Drawing these assignments from coach is just a confidence builder,” she said. “I feel good knowing they believe I can shut them down or at least limit their looks.”
“ I don’t know if I’m allowed to say the words he used,” Taylor said with a laugh as she recalled former WSU coach Mike Bradbury’s reaction to the defense she played as a freshman.
“I was terrible on defense and he was always on me at practice,” she said. “He saw my potential and he didn’t hold back on what he thought. At times I let it affect me, but I appreciate his reaction now. That openness, that honesty the real passion it all helped me progress through my career.”
Merriweather, then a Bradbury assistant and the person who had recruited Taylor out of Richmond High School in Indiana – smiled as she recalled Bradbury’s assessment of Taylor’s defense:
“We all know Mike is colorful, but he pushed her through to new challenges. He was not going to allow her to just be an offensive player.”
Taylor began to work extensively on her defense, attacking the make-over the same way she had turned herself into a long range shooter in her last two years of high school.
“I actually couldn’t shoot before that. I was strictly a driver on offense,” she said. “But then I tore my (right) ACL that summer and for a couple of months all I could do was shoot. And I knew going into college I’d really have to step up my game in that category.”
She now leads the Raiders in three-point field goals this season (65) and three point percentage (41.4).
The toughest assignments
Wright State meets IUPUI on Monday afternoon in the semifinals. The two teams split in the regular season. In the last game – a Raiders’ victory in Indianapolis on Feb. 23 — Merriweather put Taylor on the Jaguars first team All-Conference guard Danielle Lawrence.
The first time the teams played, Lawrence had 25 points. This time she had 12.
Merriweather said that effort is what convinced her to put Taylor on Abshaw on Sunday afternoon.
And now instead of profane assessment from the WSU coaches, she gets something else.
“Our assistant Keith (Freeman) uses me in a lot of examples when we do film,” Taylor said. “I worked so hard in the offseason and summer to get better that he uses that to make a point.
“He said when people come in unable to play defense, I’m an example that’s it’s possible to get better.
“And it’s been huge for me. It helps my game a lot. Even if I’m not shooting the ball well, because I can get stops, it keeps me in the game.”
And it keeps her from any more mea culpa moments in the dressing room afterward.