Winter hit Idaho State like a Mack truck. The Bengals may have been coming off a conference championship and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but because of a barrage of absences, they hardly looked the part when December arrived: Sickness befell two starters, a knee injury to another. Nobody in the program panicked, not while so many key players waited to return, but they found themselves in an exceedingly difficult spot.

So quietly, Idaho State coach Seton Sobolewski slipped junior guard Tomekia Whitman into the starting lineup, hoping to tread water while the team waited on its usual starters to return. Whitman aced the test. In a win over Portland State, Whitman tallied 12 points and 11 rebounds. Against NAU, she posted 15 points and four steals. Even in an overtime win over Carroll College, when starters Callie Bourne and Ellie Smith returned, Whitman stayed in the starting lineup — registering 11 points, seven rebounds and five steals.

“Just been focusing on the best teammate for my team when I step into that position,” Whitman said after that game.

If any of this comes across a little bizarre, maybe it should. How does Whitman, who didn’t start a single game last season, make a massive increase in role seem so ordinary? Against Northern Arizona, she logged 40 minutes. Against Carroll, 42. Both those numbers cleared her highest mark last season by an enormous margin.

Surely somebody — some coach, a teammate, a friend — pushed her to do a little more for the team in the absence of those starters?

“I didn’t feel like I needed to. I just felt like she understood the situation,” Sobolewski said. “It’s not like she had to play above normal. Her normal is pretty darn good. So she just had to be the next person up, play her normal game and play hard, and good things will happen.”

In short, that’s how Whitman has helped the Bengals win six straight, turning a 1-5 start into an 8-6 heater: By playing like herself. She knows how much more she’s playing, and why that’s been important, but nothing has really changed about her game. She’s still an ace defender, averaging a Big Sky-best 3.2 steals per game. Still a viable scoring option, posting 8.9 points per game. Still an aggressive rebounder, pulling down 6.4 boards per game.

Ahead of Idaho State’s two-game road test this weekend, against Eastern Washington on Thursday and Idaho on Saturday, that will remain critical. Bourne, who returned from sickness in December, suffered an injury last week that prompted Sobolewki to say, “I don’t anticipate her being back any time soon.” Even guard Dora Goles, whose injured finger has sidelined her the last two weeks, isn’t nearly 100% healthy.

Translation: In this stretch and beyond, the Bengals need Whitman to be, well, Whitman.

“It just comes with being in the game, going with the flow of it,” she said. “In practices, everybody scores. So in games, (Sobolewski) tell us, ‘If you’re open, go score.’ So that’s just something that I’ve actually turned into. If I’m open, I’ll look to score more often now.”

The truth is that represents one area Whitman has really improved in. Last season, her season-high in points was 12, in a win over Division II Northwest Nazarene. This year, she’s eclipsed that mark five times. Her best outing came against Park, an NAIA school, but she’s also delivered that 15-point outing against NAU — plus back-to-back 13-point games in wins over Montana and Montana State.

But focusing on Whitman’s scoring acumen is like zooming in on some fringe disciple on the outside of The Last Supper. It’s not the main attraction. For Whitman, recently at least, that’s been her defense. Consider her steals numbers in games over the last month: Four, five, four, four, five, three, four. That makes her the conference’s top defender in that department.

With 6.4 rebounds per game, she ranks No. 14 in the conference, but most of those players stand 6-foot-something. Good luck towering over the defense and not grabbing 10 rebounds a game. Whitman is 5-foot-10. So for players under 6 feet, Whitman checks in at No. 4 in the conference. That’s where her rebounding genius starts to crystallize.

“That’s one thing I’ve focused on a lot,” Whitman said. “It’s one thing (Sobolewski) has emphasized a lot — me getting in there, crashing the o-boards, crashing the d-boards, playing solid defense. For me, I get more energy from our defense. When we play really good defense as a whole, it translates to offense, so that’s how I feel the game goes for me.”

The Bengals will need every drop this weekend.

When Idaho State visits Eastern Washington, set for a 7 p.m. MST tipoff Thursday night, the Bengals will square off against Jaydia Martin, one of the conference’s best shooters. She’s taken 99 triples, 40 more than the player behind her, hitting them at a 31% clip. That won’t raise many eyebrows, Idaho State would be wise to avoid letting her get hot. The good news for ISU: Eastern Washington has lost six straight, good for No. 10 in the Big Sky standings.

Idaho has fared a little better, at least in the standings, but the Vandals rank second to last in scoring offense (58.9 points per game) and last in scoring defense (allowing 72.9 points per game). On Saturday, Idaho topped Eastern Washington for its first conference win. The only trouble for the Vandals: That erased a 10-game losing streak.

Whatever the opponent, though, Idaho State employs one of the conference’s hottest shooters. That title belongs to Estefania Ors, who just won her second straight Big Sky Player of the Week award, which is what you get when you put up numbers like these: Against Montana State, she racked up 33 points on seven triples. Against Weber State, she posted 27 points on three long balls.

The magic of those outings, though, was in the numbers. In the win over the Griz, Ors knocked down 12 of 18 shots, including a 7-for-11 showing beyond the arc. When the Bengals took down Weber State, she nailed 11 of 15, 3 of 7 from deep.

She may have Whitman beat on that front — “She has two hands, but it looks like she has eight,” Ors laughed, complimenting her teammate’s rebounding — but the more Whitman fills it up, maybe Ors should start looking over her shoulder.

Greg Woods is a sports reporter at the Idaho State Journal. Follow him on Twitter at GregWWoods.