Category archive: Dayton Flyers
One moment can make a team a champion. It takes years to make a program a winner.
Dayton held on for dear life to claim its first Atlantic 10 championship in a 56-53 victory against St. Bonaventure. The Flyers took a 27-5 lead in the opening 13 minutes against the regular-season champions and then scored just 29 more points in the game's final 27 minutes. Not until a potential game-tying 3-pointer from Bonnies star Jessica Jenkins missed the mark in the final second was it clear that Dayton had done enough to win.
On another day, Jenkins gets that shot to fall, the Bonnies win in overtime and the story is about resiliency and a comeback for the ages. Forty minutes of basketball proved little more than Dayton scored more points.
But Patrice Lalor, Kayla Moses, Casey Nance, Justine Raterman, Elle Queen and the rest of Dayton's seniors earned their championship over more than 40 minutes.
It's one small statistical measure of what the current group of seniors mean to the Dayton women's basketball program that when they arrived as freshmen, Flyers coach Jim Jabir had a lifetime record on the wrong side of .500 after more than two decades on the sideline of rebuilding projects and small fish in big ponds.
Howard Smith/US PresswireDayton lost to St. Bonaventure by one point on Feb. 11, but won Monday to clinch the A-10's automatic NCAA tournament berth.
He now has more than a full season's worth of cushion on that count.
This class didn't start the turnaround, Dayton's first 20-win season under Jabir coming the season before they arrived, but they accomplished the equally difficult task of giving it permanence. The only piece missing came Monday.
The championship game was always going to be a battle of styles. St. Bonaventure wanted to control possession, a trait that doesn't quite quality a slow-down but is definitely deliberate. That style enabled the Bonnies to commit the fewest turnovers per game in the nation and become the third A-10 champion in a row to run the table in conference play, doing so without any of the WNBA talent Xavier had in back-to-back perfect conference seasons with Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips. The Bonnies thrive by seeing what teams can do in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock. The Flyers would just as soon never see the clock reach the teens, let alone single digits.
For much of the first half, Dayton had its way. They forced a team that averaged barely 11 turnovers per game during the regular season into seven before the game was even 10 minutes old. Jenkins couldn't get any open space and undersized post Megan VanTatenhove, St. Bonaventure's leading scorer in conference play, had to settle for 3-point looks with the paint closed off.
This was the Dayton team a lot of observers expected to see when the season began, a preseason co-favorite in the league that lost one key starter from the team that pushed Penn State in the first round of the NCAA tournament a season ago but returned the rest of its core -- including Raterman, the cornerstone who suffered a torn ACL in the A-10 tournament last season but rehabbed aggressively enough to be ready for the start of her final season. It wasn't the team that took the court in losses against Toledo and Cincinnati in the opening week. It took a Thanksgiving trip to a place visiting teams often dread to go for them to hit their stride -- mostly by being knocked completely off it.
"I think when we went to the Connecticut tournament and lost to Connecticut by 40, the kids had a bird's eye view of what real intense defense is about," Jabir said. "I don't know if my stats are exactly right, but I think we might have led the league in field goal defense. I think that was a real important time for us because I think we got better after that tournament at UConn. We were scoring, but we weren't defending like I really wanted to."
He was almost right. Only St. Bonaventure ranked ahead of Dayton in field goal defense. Monday, in a game that came down to one possession, Dayton shot 34.4 percent. St. Bonaventure shot 32.7.
But just as St. Bonaventure slowed the game and made a comeback when the teams met earlier this season in Dayton, rallying from an early 15-point deficit to win, the pace slowed and the margin dwindled Monday.
That the Flyers don't have one person to turn to in such moments is how they like it.
Jabir's system necessitates a liberal substitution pattern to keep up the pace he prefers. No player averages even 30 minutes per game, and the rotation of players who average double-digit minutes goes 10 deep. It's what leads the coach to say his team has a lot of heroes rather than one commanding presence, save perhaps Ratterman.
Early in the second half, St. Bonaventure cut the lead to six points at 27-21. A brief flurry from the Flyers, capped by a pull-up jumper from Lalor, extended it back to double digits. Jenkins hit a 3-pointer to cut it to seven; Raterman answered with a 3-pointer of her own. Jenkins pulled from somewhere almost as close to half court as the arc and again narrowed it to seven points. Queen got an offensive rebound and fed Lalor for another jumper.
The Bonnies eventually did take a lead, 51-50, but the Flyers collectively made them work too hard for it to hold it.
At first glance, the only twist in the story was that Dayton's final four points came from a freshman, a driving layup and two free throws from Andrea Hoover. Yet even that somehow seemed apt. The A-10's freshman of the year and a player Jabir said is too busy playing basketball to have any idea how good she is, Hoover came to a program that for much of her baseketball-conscious life had a winning tradition. It's how these seniors paved the way for a title.
"This program isn't about me, it's about them," Jabir said earlier this season. "It's their program. When we succeed, I'm happy for them. When we don't, I feel bad for them because it's their program. They're the ones putting in all the work."
Dayton's quarterfinal against St. Louis was the last game Saturday during a long day at the Atlantic 10 tournament. By the time the Flyers advanced with a comfortably easy win, the clock was creeping on toward midnight and there weren't many people waiting around to talk to Jabir about an entirely expected result. Rather than taking a seat behind the podium for the formality of a postgame news conference, he sat on the steps that led up to the stage and held court.
He joked about the mental and physical toll last year's at-large wait took on him, how the world seemed to slow around him when Dayton's time finally appeared on the television screen during the selection show. Turning slightly more serious, he started to say he thought the seniors deserved a championship. He paused, backtracked and said he wasn't really sure if anyone ever deserved anything, left unsaid that it should be earned.
Then he went ahead anyway, suggesting that if such a sentiment was ever appropriate in something like sports, he felt as though his seniors deserved a championship and the chance to keep playing the tournament title ensured.
They get that chance. And while they deserve it, they also earned it. Monday night and for four years leading up to it.
A chance to be one of the best players in the nation.
That's how Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell described what the future might hold for A'dia Mathies not long before her sophomore season began. Almost two seasons later, her exact place on such an inexact list remains up for debate, but she is the go-to player on the first Kentucky team to win an SEC regular-season title in her lifetime. It's a pretty good label in its own right.
Mathies didn't turn in a spectacular line in Sunday's 76-40 win at Mississippi State, a victory that clinched Kentucky's first regular-season title since 1982, but the Wildcats didn't need individual brilliance to get by the Bulldogs. With what is essentially an 11-player rotation, the Wildcats rarely turn one player loose on the box score, relying on that depth and collective defensive effort to force nearly 23 turnovers per game. But from her freshman season, when she scored 32 points in her first NCAA tournament game, and added 21 more in a subsequent win against top-seeded Nebraska, Mathies hinted at a knack for knocking out soliloquies, even in a supporting role alongside Victoria Dunlap.
There have been 14 instances of a Kentucky player scoring at least 20 points in a game this season; Mathies is responsible for 10 of them. Sure, a handful of those came against the likes of Northeastern and Southern Miss, but Mathies also put up 20-plus points in victories against Arkansas, Duke, Louisville and South Carolina. She also turned in a performance that ranks near the top of any list of the best singe-game efforts of the season with 34 of her team's 61 points in a one-point victory against Tennessee. Mathies' shooting percentage remains almost unchanged from an inconsistent sophomore effort, but in more than doubling her 3-point output and dramatically improving her long-range accuracy, she has become a much more efficient scorer. She's not a perfect player, nor is a Kentucky team that recently lost three in a row a perfect champion. But only Baylor need worry about perfection right now. For everyone else, it's about being better than those in the other uniform.
It took three decades for Kentucky to get a chance to celebrate a second conference championship. It shouldn't take much more than 24 months for the Wildcats to welcome a second SEC player of the year to program lore.
Making a case for March: Duke. While we're celebrating regular-season conference titles, full credit to Duke for a March-like performance in beating Miami and North Carolina in roughly the span of 72 hours to clinch the ACC regular-season title.
The math seems to add up to Duke earning a No. 2 seed, no matter the weekend results and no matter what happens in the ACC tournament, but the Blue Devils are trying to keep the calculators working right up to the final hour. More importantly, they showed both a toughness and an offensive efficiency in the two victories that they'll need regardless of seeding. As was the case in a loss against Maryland, rebounding remains an issue without injured starter Richa Jackson -- Miami piled up 19 offensive rebounds and North Carolina totaled 15 against a team that entered the weekend allowing just 12.3 offensive rebounds per game. But the champions, bedeviled so often by offensive inconsistency in recent postseasons, shot 49 percent against the Hurricanes and 52 percent against the Tar Heels, with point guard Chelsea Gray putting an exclamation point on things by setting the single-season assists record.
Novosel hit all 12 of her free throw attempts against the Bulls. One of the best at getting into seams around the basket and either finishing or drawing a foul (rivaled by few this side of teammate Skylar Diggins in that regard), she's averaging 4.6 free throw attempts per game this season. That isn't bad by almost any standard, but it is down from 5.9 attempts per game a season ago. She's scoring at almost the same overall rate as a season ago, and her team is winning at an even greater rate than it did last season, so Novosel and the Fighting Irish are still doing just fine. But the more whistles you hear, the more likely it is she's driving opponents to distraction.
Best team weekend performance: Princeton. What did Princeton do to merit this? Did you see any other teams clinching berths in the NCAA tournament over the weekend? Or doing so for the third season in a row, for that matter? The Tigers spent the weekend doing what they have done with impressively numbing regularity in Ivy League play in recent seasons, beating Harvard by 30 points and Dartmouth 37 points to wrap up another conference title. That they did it with three games still to play in a league that doesn't hold a tournament is just Princeton's style. A strong contender for the weekend's top individual honors, Niveen Rasheed put up 24 points, 16 rebounds, five steals and four assists against Dartmouth, but she split the vote with teammate Lauren Edwards, who scored 29 points in the same game, including 7-of-10 from the 3-point line.
Lending a helping hand: Casey Garrison, Missouri State. Injuries took a toll on several potential mid-major powers this season, most notably those that took the likes of Northern Iowa's Jacqui Kalin and Toledo's Naama Shafir off the court. But the small matter of an injury to her shooting hand isn't stopping Garrison from fueling Missouri State's run in the Missouri Valley Conference. As the Springfield News Leader recounts, Garrison (who already donned a mask this season to play through a broken nose) simply started shooting with her left hand when she sprained the thumb on her more familiar shooting hand. Her first game as a southpaw? She scored 20 points. A lefty off the court, shooting with that hand was apparently nonetheless a relatively new experience. With Garrison leading the way, Missouri State owns first place in the league and 10 victories in a row, including Sunday's 80-76 win at second-place Illinois State.
The week ahead (Monday-Friday)
Notre Dame at Connecticut (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET Monday): Are we headed for a season in which neither Connecticut nor Tennessee win regular-season conference titles? Kentucky already locked up the SEC, and Notre Dame, which already clinched a share of the Big East title, can go for its first outright title with a win in Hartford. Of course, it might also be just the first of two games between the team in Hartford in the next eight days, if the conference tournament leaves them opposite each other in the final. Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel combined for 19 free throws when the Fighting Irish won an overtime thriller in South Bend earlier this season. In 15 games since, only one Connecticut opponent -- the entire team -- attempted as many as 19 free throws (Louisville's 21 attempts on Feb. 7).
Baylor at Texas A&M (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET Monday): Forget the 12th man; Texas A&M could use a sixth player. In five meetings between these two since the beginning of last season, Texas A&M's bench scored a total of 21 points (17 from Karla Gilbert). That worked out on the fourth try a season ago, and it's not like the Aggies roll bench points against everyone else. But without Danielle Adams and Sydney Colson around, it's a tough way to go about stopping the nation's No. 1 team.
St. John's at Georgetown (Monday): There are still matters of Big East tournament seeding at stake, in addition to a chance for St. John's to post the program's best league record, but this one is big for momentum alone. St. John's didn't win a true road game until Jan. 11 at Syracuse, but wins at Rutgers and, as you might have heard, Connecticut beefed up that road profile. With Da'Shena Stevens coming off a 21-point effort over the weekend, it's worth noting no St. John's player has hit more than five field goals in a game against Georgetown since the 2007-08 season.
Appalachian State at Chattanooga (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET Monday): It's a chance for Appalachian State to clinch the outright Southern Conference regular-season title, but only if it can beat third-place Chattanooga on the road. Appalachian State's Anna Freeman is one of those quintessential do-everything mid-major players, averaging 15.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 steals, 2.7 assists and 2.1 blocks per game.
Florida Gulf Coast versus East Tennessee State (ESPN3, 12 p.m. ET Wednesday): Get Championship Week started by watching a team that has the potential to do something in the main draw -- if it can take care of business in the Atlantic Sun tournament. Florida Gulf Coast faces East Tennessee State in a quarterfinal. This game comes just four days after the same teams met to end the regular season, a 71-64 win for the Eagles that was one of just four wins by single-digit margins in an unbeaten conference season.
Kansas State at Iowa State (Wednesday): There isn't much doubt Kansas State will be in the NCAA tournament, but an overtime loss at Missouri raised more eyebrows when it comes to a team that already seemed to have an inflated RPI. For a team that has shown an ability to go on the road and win, notably at Marist, South Dakota State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech, adding a win in Ames, Iowa, would be a boost. On the other side, Iowa State needs a win badly, if not desperately, to shore up its own at-large r´esumé.
Oklahoma State at Kansas (Wednesday): Both teams need victories in the struggle for NCAA tournament at-large consideration. Kansas got a badly needed result with a win at Texas Tech last week, fueled by 20 points and eight assists from Angel Goodrich. But the Jayhawks are just 3-8 in their last 11 and playing without Carolyn Davis, do they need to sweep Oklahoma State and Oklahoma?
Louisiana Tech at Fresno State (Thursday): Such is life for a mid-major like Fresno State, that all of the work of a 12-game winning streak and clinching at least a share of the WAC regular-season title can be partly negated by one tough loss. But a 62-61 loss at mid-table San Jose State does damage Fresno State's NCAA tournament at-large potential. Before they can worry about that, or even the conference tournament, the Bulldogs face the best women's basketball rivalry in the WAC. Ki-Ki Moore scored 20 when Fresno State won 61-59 in Louisiana.
The mid-major top 10 returns with the same ground rules. All conferences beyond the BCS six (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) qualify for consideration.
No, Courtney Vandersloot didn't gain additional eligibility. But just as Tennessee won a football national championship the season after Peyton Manning exited, Gonzaga isn't doomed without its All-American. Depth is the reason the Bulldogs will be fine. Few teams in any conference have size like the Bulldogs do in 6-foot-3 sophomore Stephanie Golden, 6-4 freshman Sonja Greinacher (a German youth international who coach Kelly Garves went head-to-head with Louisville to land) and 6-5 freshman Shelby Cheslek. Instant eligibility for Kansas State transfer Taelor Karr is a big backcourt plus.
Key player: Kayla Standish. Seniors Standish and Katelan Redmon give the Bulldogs two established stars, but that doesn't mean Standish, a 6-2 former prep high jump champion, is anywhere close to hitting her ceiling just yet. She's a 20-10-3 (points-rebounds-blocks) threat every time she steps on the court.
Key games: Playing at Stanford on Nov. 13 is the attention grabber, but back-to-back December games against Georgia and Dayton in Las Vegas are the real proving ground.
With just more than 12 minutes to play in its second-round game last season, Temple was within five points of Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish went on a run that carried them all the way to Indianapolis, and the Owls went home, but Tonya Cardoza has taken what Dawn Staley turned around and continued crafting a nationally relevant program. A full season of Hofstra transfer Joelle Connelly inside to complement 6-4 Victoria Macaulay means one more way for Temple to frustrate the heck out of opponents defensively.
Key player: Kristen McCarthy. Point guard Shey Peddy drives the Owls, but she needs a partner. McCarthy's shooting efficiency slipped last season, but she's a do-everything forward.
Key games: There is no shortage, including defending champion Texas A&M in the Bahamas and Duke at home on Dec. 30. Road games against Ohio State and Rutgers are also important tests.
Preseason scrimmages are usually fool's gold. Consider Justine Raterman's 10 points in a recent Dayton scrimmage the exception to that rule. Reports early this fall were Raterman was on the leading edge of the typical timeframe for rehabbing a torn ACL, an injury she suffered in last season's NCAA tournament, and her presence on the court in the scrimmage seems to confirm as much. With Raterman, an elite player when healthy, alongisde underrated point guard Patrice Lalor, shot-blocking center Casey Nance and freshman Ally Malott, Dayton has Sweet 16 talent.
Key player: Malott. It's a lot to put on a freshman, but McDonald's All-Americans/Under-18 national team players are rare at this level, even for the semi-major A-10. The Ohio native is a 6-4 talent with an all-court game.
Key games: A trip to Connecticut over Thanksgiving break jumps off the page, but games against Boston College, Illinois and Gonzaga in about a two-week span in December might be more useful measures.
4. Green Bay
Like Gonzaga, Green Bay is eager to prove once-in-a-generation players don't mean once-in-a-generation success. Celeste Hoewisch and Kayla Tetschlag are gone, taking a lot of on-court production and even more leadership with them from a team that reached the Sweet 16 and lost just twice all season. But five of seven rotation players return for a program that, at least statistically, doesn't rely on the individual. With senior Hannah Quilling and juniors Lydia Bauer, Adrian Ritchie and Hannah Quilling around, ball possession and 3-point shooting will remain strengths.
Key player: Julie Wojta. You don't survive as a 6-foot post without being versatile, but Wojta thrives in that role by taking versatility to new levels. She led the Phoenix in assists, defensive rebounds and blocks. A quiet presence, at least in comparison to Tetschlag and Hoewisch, leadership is the next thing she'll be asked to provide.
Key games: Playing Illinois and Georgia Tech in Puerto Rico is the best test against top competition, although the Dec. 23 game at Wisconsin has meaning after the offseason coaching carousel.
5. Florida Gulf Coast
Finally eligible for the NCAA tournament after completing the transition to Division I, Florida Gulf Coast might not waste much time availing itself of the new opportunity. Five of the six main rotation players return from a team that went 28-4 a season ago, including leading scorer Sarah Hansen and 3-point wizard Kelsey Jacobson. Newly eligible Oregon State transfer Brittany Kennedy and a freshman class highlighted by top-100 signee Whitney Knight and Greek foward Anthi Chatzigiakoumi suggest depth won't be an issue.
Key player: Courtney Chihil. Any 5-8 player who leads a team in rebounding (5.8 per game) and leads a conference in assist-turnover ratio (1.89) is worth singling out for attention. The one rotation loss, Shannon Murphy, was a big one, but Chihil could soften the loss. She does everything else.
Key games: It isn't the biggest BCS opponent, but a road game at Seton Hall to open the season is a start and sets the stage for a Nov. 19 showdown at home against Michigan State.
If you're starting to sense that the Atlantic 10, even with Xavier in rebuilding mode, is on another level, you're right. The third A-10 entry in these rankings missed the NCAA tournament a season ago, but won 24 games, beat Ohio State in Columbus and advanced to the third round of the WNIT. Momentum is building for coach Suzie McConnell-Serio. Five players averaged between 8.2 and 12.6 points per game last season, and four of them return, two of them as mere sophomores. A fifth returnee, guard Jocelyn Ford, averaged 4.9 assists and 4.5 steals per 40 minutes.
Key player: Alex Gensler. Sophomores Wumi Agunbiade and Orsi Szecsi are the potential stars with unlimited ceilings, but Gensler is the senior who grabbed a starting spot as a freshman and carved out a heck of a career. A proficient shooter, she's also the kind of player who will be interesting to track as she adjusts to the new 3-point line.
Key games: Duquesne is setting itself up to miss out on NCAA at-large consideration with a weak nonconference schedule, but the final two weeks of December will include West Virginia and Pittsburgh and could include Florida.
They lost consummate point guard Alisa Kresge and went back to the NCAA tournament. They lost all-time leading scorer Rachele Fitz and went back to the NCAA tournament. Now they lose MAAC Player of the Year Erica Allenspach. And yes, they should go back to the NCAA tournament. Coach Brian Giorgis still has Corielle Yarde, the team's leading rebounder at 5-8 and on Allenspach's heels in just about every other category, and a lot of rotation players who gained experience as freshmen and sophomores last season.
Key player: Kristina Danella. The Massachusetts transfer is eligible after sitting out last season and should play a big role. A 6-1 forward, Danella averaged 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds as a sophomore at UMass and has 3-point range.
Key games: An early road trip to Princeton makes for an interesting mid-major clash, but the high-profile tests come around Christmas against Auburn (on a neutral court) and when Kansas State comes to Poughkeepsie on Dec. 29.
South Dakota State proved it's possible for Summit League teams to wedge their way into the national conversation. Oral Roberts is the obvious choice to follow suit this season, but Oakland's defense and ball control could win the day. Led by junior forward Bethany Watterworth (17.9 points per game), the top five scorers return from an Oakland team that won 20 games, led the Summit in field goal defense and finished with a positive assist-turnover ratio last season. Center Brittany Carnago gives the Grizzlies a 6-4 shot-blocking presence few mid-major teams have.
Key player: Watterworth. Mid-major teams can't afford a lot of one-dimensional players, and Watterworth is the kind of all-around star that shines in leagues like the Summit. She averaged nearly a block and steal per game last season, led her team in assists and 3-pointers and finished second in rebounding.
Key games: They won't be long road trips, but bus rides to play Michigan State on Nov. 27 and Purdue on Dec. 20 will give the Grizzlies a chance to compete with the best in the region.
9. Oral Roberts
If nothing else, Oral Roberts is going to be fun to watch. But with five starters and the Summit League's top reserve returning from a team that won a pair of WNIT games, there should be plenty else besides entertainment. The Golden Eagles run, averaging 84.4 points and forcing 23 turnovers per game last season. National scoring and steals leader Kevi Luper (23.7 points per game, 3.7 steals per game) is the embodiment of the team's philosophy.
Key player: Jaci Bigham. Luper is clearly the star of the show, but her backcourt partner since both arrived as freshmen is the X factor. Bigham shot 42.5 percent on 233 3-point attempts as a freshman. That dipped to 31.5 percent on 143 attempts last season, as Jordan Pyle became a bigger part of the offense. Bigham also played through an ACL tear at the end of the season, proving her toughness but delaying the start of her rehabilitation.
Key games: It's a schedule built for a veteran team. The first weekend includes a trip to Wisconsin, and road trips to Houston, Arkansas and Kansas follow, along with home games against Missouri State and Louisiana Tech.
A season can hardly be considered a missed opportunity when it ends with an Ivy League championship and another trip to the NCAA tournament, but Princeton's chance to be a real March sleeper undeniably went by the wayside when leading scorer Niveen Rasheed suffered a season-ending knee injury after 12 games. If she's back to 100 percent alongside three other returning full-time starters and the player who took her place in the starting lineup, the Tigers once again have the look of a team that could exceed the typical Ivy profile.
Key player: Lauren Edwards. Rasheed is obviously a key player, but she's not alone. Princeton won't have Addie Micir, the team's leader in assists and 3-pointers last season. That makes Edwards, a 6-foot guard coming off back-to-back All-Ivy selections, all the more important in both distribution and long-distance shooting.
Key games: In addition to the game against Marist, Princeton welcomes Delaware and DePaul to Jadwin Gym, in addition to a monumental road game at Stanford and more manageable ones at Drexel and Hofstra.
11. Saint Joseph's: The Hawks return all five starters and 95 percent of the scoring from a team that went 20-12 and reached the second round of the WNIT. Five regulars had more assists than turnovers for a ball-control team.
12. Missouri State: It hurts losing Tia Mays, who left the program after averaging six rebounds and three blocks per game in her lone season, but Missouri State returns four starters. Senior Casey Garrison is going for a second MVC player of the year award.
13. Chattanooga: The Mocs should be back after missing the postseason (NCAA or WNIT) for the first time since 1999. Leading scorer Whitney Hood (18.8 ppg), shooter Kayla Christopher (41.2 percent on 3-pointers) and playmaker Tenisha Townsend (3.7 assists, 1.71 assist-turnover ratio) return.
14. Delaware: They have one of the 10 or 15 most talented players in the country, and a returning cast that held its own when that player, Elena Delle Donne, was injured for part of last season. But a team that totaled 297 assists against 568 turnovers still needs to prove it's at least the sum of its parts.
15. TCU: A talented freshman class and Iowa State transfer Whitney Williams will help replace Helena Sverrisdottir and Emily Carter, but losing Starr Crawford for the season with concussion-related issues is a big blow.
Delaware star Elena Delle Donne might be the biggest name in the mid-major ranks, but she's not the only player who bears watching. From established stars to breakthrough candidates, here are 10 players to keep an eye on from beyond the BCS conferences.
Wumi Agunbiade, Duquesne
She didn't receive a lot of attention in the discussion of the nation's best freshmen last season, but it wasn't for a lack of supporting evidence. The 6-foot-2 Canadian did earn Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year honors after averaging 11.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals for the Dukes (just for good measure, she also hit 16 3-pointers). No other A-10 player ranked in the top 15 in the conference in rebounds, steals and blocks.
Sophia Aleksandravicius, Davidson
A stranger in a strange land (which is to say, a New Yorker in North Carolina), Aleksandravicius is becoming a familiar face when it comes to Big South accolades. A versatile 6-4 forward, she averaged 16.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 1.7 steals last season. She's one of just three returning players in Division I who averaged at least three blocks per game last season, joining Baylor's Brittney Griner and Texas' Ashley Gayle. Fouling her won't help, either. After shooting 68.5 percent from the free throw line as a freshman, she improved to 82.6 percent last season.
Brogan Berry, Harvard
Princeton will be difficult to unseat in the Ivy League, particularly if Niveen Rasheed returns at full strength from last season's knee injury, but Berry is going to do her best to give Harvard an opportunity. Specifically, she's going to do her best to get her teammates opportunities. The 5-8 Ohio native averaged 4.6 assists per game as a junior and ranked ninth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. She's not all pass, holding onto the ball often enough to lead the Crimson by averaging 13.6 points per game and shoot 39 percent from the 3-point line.
Casey Garrison, Missouri State
It's not the way anyone wanted her to become the favorite, but the season-ending injury sustained by Northern Iowa standout Jacqui Kalin leaves Garrison as the clear front-runner for top individual honors in the Missouri Valley Conference, an award named in honor of former Missouri State star Jackie Stiles. Although Garrison apparently shrank over the summer, going from 6-foot in last year's media guide to 5-11 this season (old age is catching up to the senior), she remains a big guard (5.7 rebounds, 187 free throw attempts) with a small guard's playmaking eye.
Courtney Hurt, VCU
Even with Dawn Evans gone, Elena Delle Donne isn't the only player in the Colonial Athletic Association who could make a run at All-American honors. Hurt came close to doing just that last season when she averaged 23.2 points per game (second in the nation) and 12.4 rebounds (first in the nation). Short of a potential meeting with Miami in a tournament hosted by the Hurricanes, VCU doesn't have a lot of marquee games on the schedule with which to showcase Hurt, but another season of double-doubles will attract attention.
Kevi Luper, Oral Roberts
Do I hear 1,000 points in a season? It's a possibility for Luper, who scored 806 points last season as a sophomore to lead the nation at 23.7 points per game. The latter has to make her one of the only players to lead the nation in scoring in a season in which her scoring average dropped (she averaged 24.4 points per game as a freshman). She is what she is on the offensive end -- she totaled just 29 assists in 1,179 minutes last season -- but when you shoot 38 percent from the 3-point line and 84 percent from the free throw line, how wise is passing, anyway?
Kamile Nacickaite, Drexel
Schools shifting conferences is all the rage these days, but there's no truth to the rumor that Drexel applied to play in the next European championship. Following in the footsteps of former Drexel standout Gabriela Marginean on a roster that rarely lacks for international flavor, Nacickaite is poised for big things this season. The Lithuanian guard averaged 17.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last season as a junior. She shot an astounding 47.8 percent from the 3-point line on 157 attempts, compared to 40.7 percent on 295 2-point attempts.
Shey Peddy, Temple
Take heart, Eagles fans. Not every new arrival struggles in the City of Brotherly Love. A standout in the Horizon League at Wright State, Peddy had no trouble adjusting to a slightly tougher level of competition in the Atlantic 10 in her first season on the court for the Owls. It's always a good sign when a team's leading scorer also piles up defensive accolades, and Peddy managed both of those things last season. Just to make sure she had all her bases covered, the 5-7 star also led the team in assists and missed doing so on the boards by just three rebounds.
Adrian Ritchie, Green Bay
Phoenix senior Julie Wojta was a strong contender for the Horizon preseason player of the year (that honor went to Youngstown State's Brandi Brown), but last year's Sweet 16 participants need others to step up around her to keep the dynasty healthy. A long-limbed 5-11 guard, Ritchie has the tools for a breakthrough junior campaign. She played through injuries last season but still shot 37 percent from the 3-point line, finished second on the team in 3-pointers despite missing five games and finished with nearly a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Katie Sheahin, Loyola (Md.)
There is life in the MAAC beyond Marist (just don't expect the Red Foxes to give up the conference crown). Loyola's Sheahin was named the league's top defender last season as a sophomore after the 5-10 guard averaged 3.5 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. There were 21 players in Division I who averaged at least three steals a game last season. Only three of those also blocked at least a shot per game: Sheahin, Appalachian State's Anna Freeman and former Kentucky star Victoria Dunlap. Sheahin also led the Greyhounds in assists and averaged 13.1 points per game.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State hadn't lost an NCAA tournament game at Bryce Jordan Center in eight previous attempts. It also hadn't lost an NCAA tournament game of any kind since 2005 -- because it hadn't played one, a streak of five consecutive March misses since losing to Liberty in the first round of that year's tournament.
AP PhotoJulia Trogele and Penn State held off Dayton.
Only one of those streaks came to an end Saturday.
Here's a quick look at Penn State's 75-66 victory against Dayton, the first NCAA win for the Lady Lions since 2004.
Turning point: Trailing 65-63, Dayton had a pair of chances to tie the score in the final two minutes, but Penn State senior Julia Trogele came up big both times. On the first possession, Trogele tipped away a post entry that deflected off a Dayton player and out of bounds (one official initially ruled the ball off Trogele before reversing it on consultation with the far-side official). On the second possession, Dayton's Brittany Wilson missed a runner from the right side and Trogele pulled down the defensive rebound, leading to an Alex Bentley basket and a four-point lead on the other end.
Key stat: 1-for-6 FG. Dayton junior Justine Raterman, the team's leading scorer and a player who put up 32 points when the teams played in the regular season, never got going offensively and finished 1-for-6 from the floor. Coming into the game, Raterman said the knee she injured in the Atlantic 10 tournament was fine, but after hitting her first field goal attempt of the game, she didn't seem to have the normal quickness or confidence that makes her one of the best players in the country outside the six major conferences. Odds are neither Raterman nor Jim Jabir will make any sort of excuse because of the injury, but Dayton's best player clearly gave full effort on a less than fully healthy knee. Said Jabir postgame: "Justine's the toughest kid I've ever been around. I think there might be more damage in [the knee] than we think."
Key player: Alex Bentley. Penn State's point guard was more finisher than distributor on this night, and the Lady Lions needed all of her 18 points. Dayton did a nice job maintaining contact, literally and figuratively, with Penn State shooting sensation freshman Maggie Lucas, so Bentley had to become her team's primary scoring option. She was big in the first half with 14 points and came through with two must-have field goals down the stretch. Her final shooting numbers don't look efficient, but she played the role her team needed to perfection.
Miscellany: Dayton looked the more awake of the two teams when the game tipped at a few minutes after 11 a.m. ET, jumping to a 16-8 lead in the first five minutes, but the game turned as soon as Penn State's energy picked up. With Flyers starting point guard Patrice Lalor on the bench for a breather and her team up eight points, Penn State forced six turnovers in the span of two minutes, at the end of which it was in possession of an 18-16 lead. Dayton never really regained its rhythm in the first half, and by the time it made a run in the second half, Penn State had enough cushion to withstand it.
What's next: Penn State awaits the winner of third-seeded DePaul and No. 14 seed Navy. Barring a monumental upset, that likely means the Blue Demons. Penn State is 4-0 all time against the team from Chicago, including 2-0 at home, but given that many of the players weren't walking the last time the teams played in 1992, history won't mean much.
There are times, Ebony Gainey admits, when she wonders about what could have been or thinks back to what she envisioned the present would look like when it was still a future waiting to take shape. Only a belief that all things happen for a reason offers the strength to keep regret and bitterness at bay, the past less deserving of her attention than the future.
Whatever happened Saturday when Gainey took the court for Dayton's game against Fordham, the first game of a college career seemingly cut short by a heart ailment before it began four seasons ago, wasn't going to change any of that. As Dayton coach Jim Jabir suggested beforehand, whether Gainey got a shot or scored mattered less than simply seeing her in a uniform and in the starting lineup after withstanding years of adversity, including the loss of a beloved older sister and the loss of a sport that enthralled her.
Except that for at least 118 seconds, Saturday wasn't about past or future. It was about a present in which Gainey was once again a basketball player.
"Once I got out there it was just basketball again," Gainey said.
And no basketball player wants to go out on a miss.
Off the opening tip, Gainey got an opportunity to run the play Jabir said would come her way. The only problem was that things were out of kilter from the start, the initial pass squirting through Gainey's legs on the perimeter before she was able to save the ball from going out of bounds and miss an off-balance shot from the baseline. Knowing the plan all along was to get her out of the game as quickly as possible, she wondered if that bad bounce might be the last one she got on a basketball court.
"I kind of thought Coach was going to call a timeout or something, I didn't know," Gainey said. "I did think it was going to be the only chance. But he didn't call timeout and I had a chance to go play defense, so I figured I'd get another chance at it. So I had to clear my mind and calm down."
And when Dayton star Justine Raterman stole back the ball after just 33 seconds and eschewed any opportunity for a break in favor of a half-court set, the Flyers went right back to the senior playing for the first time in her hometown.
Collecting the ball beyond the 3-point line on the left side of the court, as had been the design of the initial play, Gainey faced up, saw her defender bracing for a pick coming from the lane and caught the opponent flat-footed with a strong drive in the opposite direction of the screen. Two dribbles later, Gainey went up strong from the left side and watched her contested shot glance off the backboard and the front of the rim before falling back through the net.
"I don't know if I felt like it was going in right when it left my hand," Gainey admitted. "It kind of rattled around the rim a little second, so I kind of stood there for a minute to make sure it was going in. But once it hit the backboard, it felt good after that."
An important part of Dayton's success the past four seasons as a teammate, mentor, coach and friend on the sideline, Gainey could look up at the scoreboard and see her contributions toward a win formally represented in a lead. A little more than a minute later, the horn sounded and she gave up her spot for good to regular starter Patrice Lalor.
With the eventual 69-51 victory, Dayton clinched a tie for third place in the Atlantic-10 regular season. That result on the scoreboard was the one Gainey pointed to as the day's big accomplishment, but neither the win nor the place in the standings will likely be what many remember about the final home game of the 2010-11 season.
"I will forever remember it and forever be grateful for everybody putting so much time into getting it to happen, and for the coaches just allowing me to do it," Gainey said. "I will forever be grateful to everyone who had a part in making it happen. It was just an amazing day."
And for Gainey, one field goal is one more reason to keep believing.
"It's not about what could have been," she said, "it's about what is ahead."
1. Xavier (21-2, 10-0 Atlantic 10)
There's still a home game against Duquesne, but it looks increasingly like a second consecutive season of A-10 perfection for the Musketeers will come down to the finale at Temple on Feb. 27. Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips get plenty of attention, and deservedly so, but Special Jennings is having an extraordinary senior season. She leads the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio for a team quietly in the back in that category. With conference perfection on the line, she came up with 19 points and eight assists in a 70-66 overtime victory at Dayton on Feb. 5.
2. Green Bay (24-1, 13-0 Horizon League)
A season ago, Green Bay endured a lost weekend in Chicago. This year, it opened the second half at Illinois-Chicago on Feb. 10 with a 19-2 run en route to an 81-50 victory. Two days later, it led Loyola 42-8 at one point in the first half. And those results came on the heels of an 84-25 victory against Youngstown State in which a first-half shutout appeared to be in play. The Phoenix are playing too well not to bump them up to second, and Xavier shouldn't get too comfortable in the top spot. Celeste Hoewisch was slighted in the Naismith midseason top 30 released recently, but the senior pulse of the team is shooting 48.8 percent from the floor, 43.8 percent from the 3-point line and 81.6 percent from the free throw line.
3. Marist (23-2, 14-0 MAAC)
It must be nice when winning by double digits constitutes a close call, but Marist has come up with some closer-than-usual victories of late, including an honest-to-goodness nail-biter in a 54-52 win at Fairfield on Feb. 6. That said, the Red Foxes are still winning by an average of 17 points per game, setting up a closing stretch in which three of their final four opponents own winning conference records. Marist's overall 3-point shooting has actually tailed off slightly in conference play, making freshman Leanne Ockenden (44.1 percent from behind the arc in MAAC play) potentially that much more useful off the bench down the stretch.
4. Gonzaga (22-4, 10-0 WCC)
Courtney Vandersloot keeps moving up the charts. The senior recorded career assist No. 1,000 against Pepperdine on Feb. 12, becoming just the fourth player in NCAA history -- and the first since 1995 -- to reach quadruple figures. The senior has either scored or assisted on 49 percent of the team's field goals this season. A home game against second-place Saint Mary's looms at the end of the month, but all that otherwise stands between the Bulldogs and a spotless conference record are games against three of the four teams with losing records in WCC play.
5. Temple (19-6, 10-0 Atlantic 10)
The Owls have knocked off Duquesne and St. Bonaventure on the road in the past two weeks, leaving an intra-city trip to Saint Joseph's as the toughest remaining test away from home. Shey Peddy is four rebounds shy of leading the team in points, assists, steals, free throw attempts and rebounds. She does have some ground to cover if she wants to catch Victoria Macaulay for the lead in blocks, so the 5-foot-7 star in her first season in Philadelphia is at least mortal. Even with a potential rematch looming a week later in the conference tournament in Lowell, Mass., the finale against Xavier shapes up as one of the season's most interesting games.
6. Houston (20-4, 11-0 Conference USA)
Houston owns a four-game lead with five to play in Conference USA, so there isn't much math to do in working out the magic number to clinch a title. As always, it's worth noting the team is 19-2 with Courtney Taylor in the lineup. Why is it worth noting? Consider Taylor's 21 points, 18 rebounds, three steals and two blocks on the road against Tulane on Feb. 6. After shooting 39.2 percent in nonconference games, Houston is up to 41.7 percent in league play.
7. Louisiana Tech (18-5, 10-0 WAC)
It has taken five overtimes, including four in two games against Fresno State, but Louisiana Tech is still unbeaten in the WAC. The Lady Techsters lead the league in scoring offense during conference play and have hit at least 85 points in each of their past four games. Points per game is the only major team category Tech leads the league in during conference play, but where other contenders have weak spots the Lady Techsters are near the top in every major category (scoring margin, field goal offense, field goal defense, assist-to-turnover ratio, 3-point offense, etc.).
8. Northern Iowa (19-5, 12-1 Missouri Valley)
The winning streak is at 11 games in conference play for the Panthers, who took a big step toward winning the regular-season title and proving themselves relevant beyond the league by beating Missouri State on the road on Feb. 6 and turning around to beat Creighton at home on Feb. 10. Lizzie Boeck had double-doubles in both victories, while Jacqui Kalin scored 44 points and got to the free throw line 23 times. Northern Iowa now faces three road games in nine days, but those games come against the three teams at the bottom of the standings.
9. James Madison (19-6, 12-1 Colonial)
After starting the season 5-5, including losses against Hampton and Monmouth and a pair of overtime victories against Montana and Central Florida, James Madison heads toward March on firmer ground. Wins at home against Old Dominion on Feb. 6 and at Virginia Commonwealth on Feb. 10 put the Dukes out in front in the conference race, although difficult road games remain at Delaware and Hofstra before a home finale against third-place UNC-Wilmington. Boston College transfer Lauren Whitehurst is averaging 8.1 rebounds per game in CAA competition, compared to 4.9 per game prior to conference play.
10. TCU (17-8, 9-2 Mountain West)
TCU trails BYU by a game in the standings, but in a top-heavy league, the Horned Frogs are 3-0 against the only other two teams with winning conference records. The defending champions put a curious two-game slide against New Mexico and Air Force behind them with recent victories against third-place Wyoming, UNLV and San Diego State. Helena Sverrisdottir played 93 minutes combined in those games and turned over the ball a grand total of once.
Next five: Middle Tennessee, Charlotte, Dayton, BYU, Toledo
1. Xavier (17-2, 6-0 Atlantic 10)
The Musketeers appear to be in cruise mode, in the best sense of the term, in the Atlantic 10. They face a challenging two-game road swing this weekend at Dayton and Richmond, but they've won all three of their conference road games to this point by 20-plus points, including an impressive 82-61 victory at Charlotte last week. As much as Xavier returned this season, starting with Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips, it lost a key piece in April Phillips. But in conference play, particularly recently, senior Megan Askew has given Xavier the same rebounding presence April Phillips provided. She's averaging seven rebounds per game over the past five contests.
AP Photo/Matt SlocumLike Xavier, Shey Peddy and the Temple Owls are 6-0 in the Atlantic 10.
2. Marist (19-2, 10-0 MAAC)
It's a sign things are going well when you beat the second-place team in your conference by double digits and face questions about what went wrong. That was the case for Marist after a sloppy second half in a 62-52 victory at home against Loyola. Including that win and a subsequent 70-41 victory at Rider, the Red Foxes have won nine games in a row by double figures and haven't allowed more than 52 points since Jan. 2. And if the game against Loyola wasn't pretty, it did reinforce just what kind of player Erica Allenspach is. With her team needing the production, she totaled 22 points on 9-of-10 shooting with 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 turnover.
3. Green Bay (20-1, 9-0 Horizon)
Green Bay put together about as complete a performance as a team can in demolishing rival Wisconsin-Milwaukee 87-39 on Jan. 22 and promptly dropped a spot in both Top 25 polls the following week. But beyond that puzzler, Green Bay passed what looks like its toughest test in the Horizon League with a 66-62 victory at previously unbeaten Butler. With 3-point shooter Adrian Ritchie still out of the lineup with a knee injury, do-everything guard Celeste Hoewisch lived up to that label by hitting 6 of 8 shots from the 3-point line in the two-game swing through Butler and Valparaiso.
4. Gonzaga (19-4, 7-0 WCC)
A 70-49 victory at San Diego on Saturday more or less qualifies as a close call for Gonzaga; the Bulldogs' past four wins came by an average margin of 30.8 points, including a 106-77 victory at Saint Mary's, purportedly Gonzaga's chief competition in the WCC. Courtney Vandersloot totaled 45 assists in four games since these rankings last appeared. And Janelle Bekkering, a key complementary piece for any postseason run, hit 14 of 23 shots in the same span. What hurdles remain don't seem likely to trip the Bulldogs (especially prep hurdler Kayla Standish); Gonzaga plays five of its final seven conference games at home, with only a road swing to last-place San Francisco and sixth-place Santa Clara interrupting the stretch.
5. Temple (15-6, 6-0 Atlantic 10)
As well as Xavier is playing, it can't claim to be the only unbeaten team in the Atlantic 10. Unbeaten Temple gets a test Saturday at Duquesne, but it added an impressive 84-56 home victory against Richmond to its profile on Saturday. Wright State transfer Shey Peddy seems to be coming into her own in conference play. Through six league games, Peddy leads the team in free throw attempts, assists and steals, owns a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio and is averaging 14.3 points per game, up from 12.1 out of conference. Perhaps not coincidentally, Kristen McCarthy's shooting percentages are also up noticeably in A-10 play.
6. Duquesne (18-3, 5-1 Atlantic 10)
A home loss against Richmond on Jan. 19 put a slight damper on Duquesne's rise, but the team bounced back to win the games it should against La Salle, George Washington and Fordham over the past two weeks. That sets up an opportunity to follow up earlier road victories at Ohio State and Dayton with a big home meeting with Temple this weekend. The game against the Owls will be a matchup of guards on the rise, with Duquesne's Vanessa Abel squaring off against Peddy. A stat-stuffer in everything but points prior to conference play, Abel is averaging 11 points per game in A-10 competition.
7. Louisiana Tech (15-5, 7-0 WAC)
A familiar name makes its first appearance. Louisiana Tech got off to a slow start this season without Shanavia Dowdell, but the past month has been a major success. After a victory against Georgia and narrow loss against Marquette in Miami just before New Year's, Tech opened 2011 with a win against Southern Miss and seven victories in a row in WAC play, including a triple-overtime win at Fresno State on Jan. 13, a 24-point victory against Nevada on Jan. 24 and a successful swing through Idaho this past weekend. All of which sets up Saturday's rematch with Fresno State. Adrienne Johnson ranks first in scoring, fifth in rebounding and third in steals in the WAC.
8. Houston (17-4, 8-0 Conference USA)
It's almost worth noting above that Houston is also 16-2 with Courtney Taylor in the lineup. Then again, Houston was also 36 seconds from being 16-5 overall. Down six points with that much time remaining on the clock in Sunday's game against SMU, Houston scored 11 points in a row for a 72-67 victory. A two-time member of the Conference USA all-defensive team, Taylor might have to fend off a challenge from within this season. Teammate Lesslee Mason had five blocks and three steals against SMU and is averaging 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 2.2 steals per game.
9. Dayton (14-7, 5-2 Atlantic 10)
February is a short month, but it's going to offer more than enough to prove once and for all what Dayton is this season. The fun starts Wednesday with a trip to St. Bonaventure, never an easy trek and never an easy team to play. That sets up Saturday's rematch with Xavier after the Flyers pushed the Musketeers to the wire in Cincinnati on Jan. 9. And if that's not enough, trips to Charlotte and Temple loom before the month is three weeks old. The Flyers took care of business building up to this stretch, winning their past four games by double digits, including a 66-55 victory at Richmond on Jan. 22. Worth watching is that as Dayton's pace has slowed against conference foes, its torrid early 3-point shooting has also cooled.
10. Northern Iowa (15-5, 8-1 Missouri Valley)
Granted, Northern Iowa hit a favorable patch of scheduling in recent weeks, but the Missouri Valley leader is doing exactly what needs to be done with a gift like that. Against Evansville, Southern Illinois and Bradley in the team's three most recent games, Northern Iowa has three victories by 24 or more points and has not allowed an opponent to reach 40 points. Not to mention the Panthers already have wins against the two teams tied for second, Creighton and Missouri State. They shoot the 3-pointer often and accurately, value possession and turn over opponents. That's a tried-and-true formula.
Next five: Middle Tennessee, Florida Gulf Coast, TCU, Princeton, Toledo
How much of a difference is there between reloading and rebuilding? Judging by the events at the Devaney Center in Lincoln, Neb., on Saturday afternoon, there's at least 57 points' worth of difference. A meeting of two programs facing very similar challenges entering the season offered two very different conclusions as Nebraska opened its season with a record-breaking 95-38 win against Vermont.
AP Photo/Ed ZurgaSophomore Lindsey Moore hit a career-high five 3-pointers as Nebraska nailed a school-record 17 treys to beat Vermont 95-38 Saturday.
Nebraska averaged 77.4 points last season, good for 10th in the nation as it claimed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But it lost 44.4 of those points per game in the forms of starters Kelsey Griffin, Cory Montgomery and Yvonne Turner (not to mention a few more from three other seniors). Not that Vermont likely offered much in the way of sympathy. The Catamounts didn't just lose five starters -- including program cornerstones Courtney Pilypaitis and May Kotsopoulos to graduation and promising freshman Kendra Seto to transfer -- but their coach as well, when Sharon Dawley took the job at Massachusetts.
So for new Vermont coach Lori Gear McBride, the task is most definitely to rebuild from the ground up. For Nebraska coach Connie Yori, the ground remains a long way down.
The Huskers hit a school-record 17 3-pointers on Saturday, besting the old record by five. Point guard Lindsey Moore, who hit 24 3-pointers on 28.9 percent shooting during an otherwise stellar freshman season in 2009-10, knocked down five in the opener. Junior Kaitlyn Burke, who played in just six games before taking a redshirt last season, hit all four of her 3-point attempts. And freshman Jordan Hooper, showing no shyness in her collegiate debut, hit three of her seven attempts from behind the line. Nebraska isn't going to do that every game, but it says something that the Huskers have the personnel to do it in even one game.
Moore, Burke and Dominique Kelley (a rare cold hand from outside against Vermont who still scored 13 points) make for a nice backcourt foundation. A highly decorated prep forward in the state, Hooper is an athletic presence at forward whose potential, at least, is not altogether unlike a certain former All-American -- only with more range. And in 6-foot-3 Catheryn Redmon and 6-4 Jessica Periago, there is size and skill inside.
Even if Saturday was an outlier, that doesn't seem like the core of a rebuilding effort.
There is a sense that Nebraska's No. 23 preseason ranking is a remnant of last season's success, a final tribute to what the team was, rather than what it is. And maybe if Nebraska wasn't the reigning conference champion, this particular collection of talent might not draw the early attention of voters. But at least on first glance, it's a group that has the potential to earn its own plaudits down the road.
Of course, a good first day doesn't guarantee much over the course of a season. Two years ago, Nebraska opened its campaign with a 96-47 win against Weber State, a game in which the Huskers knocked down a program record 12 3-pointers. Without Griffin, who missed the entire season because of injuries, they finished the season with a first-round WNIT loss and a 15-16 record.
Four things that caught my eye
AP Photo/Michael ConroyAmy Jaeschke has been one of the Big Ten's best posts for a while, and dropped 28 points on LSU on Sunday.
Northwestern could be ready to make a move. All Joe McKeown needed was a little time. Of course, inheriting a 6-5 center with All-American skills didn't hurt. The Wildcats got the season started in a big way with a 71-62 win against LSU (on the heels of a 66-37 win against Dartmouth in the actual opener). Senior center Amy Jaeschke had 28 points and four blocks against the Tigers, while junior forward Brittany Orban did some of the dirty work with 18 points and 17 rebounds. With a skilled point guard running things in Beth Marshall, Northwestern has potential to make some noise.
Illinois State made a statement. Former Redbirds coach Robin Pingeton got her tenure at Missouri off on the right foot with a win against Memphis, but took the first loss of a major rebuilding effort against Eastern Illinois on Sunday. The news was better for her old team. Minus its old coach and three starters from last season's WNIT semifinals team, Illinois State knocked off Illinois on the Big Ten team's court to open the Stephanie Glance era. The Redbirds did it despite attempting just five 3-pointers, getting to the free throw line 30 times and beating the Illini on the boards. Next up for the Redbirds? Eastern Illinois. Well, that shouldn't lead to any comparisons or anything.
Oklahoma has some big question marks in the post, and that's not a bad thing. Always willing to go on the road and take on a challenge, Oklahoma struggled for the first 30 minutes of its opener at Milwaukee but rode Danielle Robinson's near triple-double (20 points, 11 assists, 8 steals) to a comfortable win. The win had its rough spots, including a modest 31-28 rebounding edge against the undersized Horizon League team, but while the Sooners look like a perimeter-oriented squad, they showed potential inside with sophomore Joanna McFarland and junior-college transfer Jelena Cerina, among others on a crowded bench.
Justine Raterman is really good. Ohio State All-American Jantel Lavender put up 37 points against Temple (and 26 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists against Eastern Michigan), Connecticut's Tiffany Hayes went for 32 against Holy Cross and Meighan Simmons put up 22 in her Tennessee debut. There were plenty of great individual performances over the weekend, but few were better than Justine Raterman's run against Penn State. Dayton dropped a 112-107 double-overtime decision, but Raterman went for 32 points and nine rebounds in 44 minutes -- a marathon effort under any circumstance and positively amazing given Dayton's rotation. That Flyers coach Jim Jabir wanted and/or needed her on the court that much tells you plenty about the game she had and the player she is.
The week ahead
Monday: No. 5 Duke hosting USC ranks as the highlight. The Women of Troy opened the season with a 79-73 win against Gonzaga in which Michael Cooper's team shot 63 percent in the second half. But against Duke's pressure, USC needs to improve on 25 turnovers in its opener. Other highlights include No. 14 Florida State visiting Auburn after Seminoles freshman Natasha Howard debuted with 20 points and seven rebounds against Alabama State and No. 6 Xavier visiting Michigan. Outside the rankings, Toledo's Naama Shafir (20 points, 6 assists versus St. Francis) gets a big WNIT stage at Purdue.
Tuesday: The showdown in Hartford isn't the only game of note on the schedule, even if it's the only one likely to make "SportsCenter." In addition to Connecticut-Baylor, No. 13 Georgetown hosts Maryland with Beltway-ish bragging rights on the line. The Terrapins played 13 players against Monmouth on Saturday, so Brenda Frese's presumably shortened rotation will bear watching. Arkansas-Little Rock travels to Texas A&M, giving Chastity Reed a chance to prove she's the best player on the court against a big-time opponent.
Wednesday: Ohio State's visit to Baton Rouge looks like the best of the bunch, even after the Tigers dropped their opener. This will be the second tough road game of the season's first six days for the Buckeyes, after Friday's win at Temple. Maybe it won't be "first to 100 wins" when Miami visits Nebraska, but it should be a good offensive show and a real test of just where the Huskers are right now. Someone is going to be 3-0 after NC State and Alabama meet in Tuscaloosa, reason enough to keep an eye on it.
Thursday: Brand recognition alone makes No. 15 UCLA at No. 12 Notre Dame an interesting matchup, but it's a chance for the Bruins to score a move to 3-0 after quality wins at San Diego State and at home against UC Santa Barbara. Assuming Notre Dame gets by Morehead State on Monday, it's a first opportunity for the Fighting Irish to show their stuff against a top foe. With apologies to Monmouth, Seton Hall, NJIT and the rest, Garden State bragging rights are on the line when Princeton visits Rutgers. Princeton committed 28 turnovers in a 60-50 loss at home last season, so Tigers guards Lauren Polansky and Addie Micir are on the hot seat.
They won't play the Canadian anthem at Freedom Hall in Louisville before Monday's second-round game between No. 4 seed Kentucky and fifth-seeded Michigan State, but with Ontario native Kalisha Keane lined up alongside her Spartans teammates, it wouldn't be without receptive ears.
Just as they could play it before Dayton's Kendel Ross takes the court against Tennessee. Or when Vermont starters Courtnay Pilypaitis, May Kotsopoulos, Kendra Seto and three of their teammates play Notre Dame. Or as they could have when Keane's sister, Tamika, faced Notre Dame in the first round. (With Canadian Natalie Achonwa among the headliners of the Irish's recruiting class, South Bend might want the practice.)
Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMIDayton's Kendel Ross is one of many proud Canadians making their presence felt in the NCAA tournament.
Or when Gonzaga's Janelle Bekkering and Nebraska's Harleen Sidhu and Kaitlin Burke play their respective second-round games.
Look around the rosters in the NCAA, and it starts to feel like a Canadian invasion that you don't need the late John Candy to sell. They're here, and they aren't trying to blend in.
"I definitely feel Canadian," Ross said earlier this season with an appropriately Canadian mix of chagrinned pride. "I don't let people forget it either. I have the Canadian hat, scarf, mitts on. I'm very proud of where I'm from."
And as most of the above players have already demonstrated, they can take over the tournament as well.
Dayton's second-leading scorer this season, Ross not only helped the Flyers reach the NCAA tournament for the first time but helped them in their memorable comeback win against TCU in the first round with team highs of 17 points and 11 rebounds. Pilypaitis and Kotsopoulos combined for 39 points, 12 rebounds and six assists to finally get underdogs in the win column in No. 10 Vermont's mild seed-line upset of No. 7 Wisconsin.
And while Keane didn't have her best day against Bowling Green in the first round, Michigan State's leading scorer could be a key figure against Kentucky in the second round.
"I think those Canadian kids just have a sense of maturity about them, too, and just such a high basketball IQ, too," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. "They just get it. They play in such a way, and they play so many games up there compared to what we can do in the States. Most of our [high school] kids are like 20-2 at the end of their season and [the Canadians] are like 45-15. They just play so many more games than we do, and I think that, over time, gives them that sense of experience and wealth of knowledge."
They also stick together, particularly those from the relative provincial basketball hotbeds of Ontario and British Columbia. In the days leading up to Sunday's game against the Catamounts, Pilypaitis reached out to Keane via the Web for a scouting report on the Big Ten's Badgers.
Of course, even Canadians have their shameful secrets.
"I can't skate; I still can't to this day," Ross admitted. "I took it for five years, and I can't do it. For some reason. I'm not coordinated or balanced enough to do it. So I was thrown into a basketball league, and that's just kind of the direction I took."
The direction turned out to be south across the border.