THE BIG LEAD: AMANDA BRAINERD DEFINES THE KNIGHTS’ NCAA TOURNAMENT CEILING

RYAN REEBENACKER, KNIGHT WIRE MANAGER

As the Knights move into the American Rivers Conference tournament with the No. 1 seed, and nurse NCAA Tournament run hopes for the fourth-straight year, a spotlight is shone not on any one player, but on the entire team.

It’s not debated often who Wartburg basketball’s best player is. Who else could you point to but reigning conference MVP and local standout Emma Gerdes? But having a de facto star player has never been the Wartburg way, and while there may not be much debate over Wartburg’s best player, there may be a conversation to be had over Wartburg’s most important player: one woman who could propel the Knights to yet another Elite Eight appearance, or home early.

Enter Amanda Brainerd. The 6’1” stretch forward is in her second, and final season as a Knight, and is the cog in Wartburg’s elusive offense. Not only is Brainerd tied for the tallest player on the Knights’ varsity roster, she is also the best three-point shooter adjusted for volume.

Brainerd, the Knights’ starting power forward on any typical night, is scorching the nets with a 41.4% clip from beyond the arc this year. Pair that with the fact that Brainerd has attempted the second-most threes this year (111), and the value she brings to the Knights offense becomes undeniable.

The truth behind Brainerd’s Wartburg career is that it likely never should have happened. Brainerd’s path to the Knights came down to Waverly Shell-Rock graduate Payton Draper’s decision to transfer from Wayne State two years ago to Wartburg. Brainerd had formed a close relationship with Draper, and decided to transfer with her.

Brainerd (right) alongside A-R-C MVP Emma Gerdes (left)

This, along with the same-summer transfer that saw Tori Hazard leave the Simpson Storm for the Knights, gave Wartburg three of its five present day starters and provided ball handlers like Gerdes and Ally Conrad weapons to spread out the offense.

Gerdes will define the last two years of Wartburg’s basketball supremacy, but it’s hard to argue that there was a better possible player to compliment her style of play than Amanda Brainerd. Gerdes, a proficient three-point threat herself, is known more for her ball handling and slashing ability on any given night. When both are on the court opposing defenses find themselves scratching their heads on who to commit to.

As the help defender, when you see Emma Gerdes charge past her defender with her lightning-quick first step you naturally drop into the paint to protect against an easy layup. Gerdes knows this, and she whips the pass to Brainerd in the wing for an open three. The result of their one-two punch has left opposing teams on their heels all winter long. Brainerd is hitting close to two three-pointers a game via possessions like this, and almost all of her long range makes come off of the catch.

Without the reliable 6’1” shooter waiting on the wing or in the corner, slashers like Gerdes and Tori Hazard find their options more limited on the inside, and it sends a ripple effect throughout the offensive efficiency. With Brainerd there, teams have to keep a defender on her by the three-point line, thus leaving the paint open to attack.

This is, in essence, the pick-your-poison mentality that has led this iteration of the Knights to the past two NCAA tournaments.

Without Brainerd would Gerdes have ever reached her full potential? Would the Knights have been able to enjoy continued team success to this level after the graduations of Wartburg’s star guards Katie and Kristie Summer two years ago? 

Thanks to Amanda Brainerd’s Wayne State transfer, the Knights will never have to find out.

Wartburg will advance to face off against conference rival Loras in the A-R-C championships on Saturday at 4 p.m., with pregame coverage at 3:50 on Knight Vision.

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