Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Radford's Destinee Walker enjoying breakout season

We talked to Radford coach Mike McGuire.

We wished we had talked to Radford star Destinee Walker.

That's no knock on McGuire. As expected, the coach did an excellent job detailing the on-court exploits of Walker, the sensational sophomore wing whose early season performance has been nothing short of a revelation.

But when asked to describe Walker's personality, McGuire said "she's a fun girl, with a very engaging personality. Really outgoing. The kind of kid who's never met a stranger. A real people person. On the bus she's the life of the team. She just has this tremendous energy, and I think our team feeds off that."

Wouldn't YOU rather talk to someone like this?

Of course, we suspect Appalachian State wants nothing more to do with Walker, not after she put the Highlanders on her back down the stretch Sunday to mute the Mountaineers 57-54. With less than a minute remaining and the Highlanders down two, the 5-11 Walker scored six straight points and grabbed two rebounds in a 25-second span to pull Radford through.

"I saw a side of her that was like, 'we're not losing this game if I have anything to do with it,' " McGuire said.

Walker finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds for her third straight double-double. For the season she's averaging 16.2 points on 59 percent shooting (56.3 percent from 3) and 8.3 rebounds - numbers that not only lead Radford but also the entire Big South. On Monday, she earned her first Big South Player of the Week nod.

This from a player who averaged 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds in 19 games last season.

How did that Destinee "Crawler" become today's full-fledged, butt-kicking Destinee Walker? Being healthy is a big key - last year, injuries robbed Walker of part of the preseason and the first 10 games of her college career. When she did play, McGuire estimated she was at about 80 percent.

Added maturity helped, as did adjusting to the speed of the college game and a strong offseason, which led to a renewed confidence. The result? Well, you know that scene in the movies where a superhero just discovers they can fly, lift boulders and stuff like that? That's our metaphor for what's happening with Walker now.

Can't wait to see where this story goes next.

Walker's emergence is just one of the positives at Radford, which has raced out to a 5-1 start despite limited contributions from All-Big South forward Janayla White. A finicky sprained ankle has left White on the sideline for three games and in limited duty for the three others. But save for in the season-opening loss to George Mason, there has always been another Highlander or two ready to elevate into a key role.

"There's just something about this team," McGuire said.

On Thursday, the Highlanders will try for their sixth straight victory when they host Western Carolina (3-7) at 11 a.m. in the second annual Education Day game. More than 2,000 local elementary school students are expected to be on hand to cheer on the home team.

If Radford is successful, perhaps we'll place another call and have McGuire fill us in again.

Or better yet, maybe Walker can supply the details.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Chit-chat with Kenny Brooks, coach of the 25th ranked team in the nation

With Virginia Tech back in the Top 25, we figured it was time to check in with Kenny Brooks, whose winning percentage in Blacksburg is hard to argue with. Central Connecticut State, since you asked, is on tap for Wednesday night at 6 p.m. in Cassell Coliseum for the 8-0 Hokies.

An early aside, we like Brooks' candor, a rarity in an era of coach-speak (Jeff Walz not among that crowd). It's nice to ask a coach about being ranked in the AP poll and not have him dismiss it with an "only-poll-that-matters-is-the-final-poll" answer.

"It validates the hard work these kids have put in," Brooks said. "It's an honor. It's a surprise to be there this quickly; I never thought it would happen this quickly."

Regarding personnel, we know about Chanette Hicks, espnW national player of the week last week and third in the NCAA in steals, but as for the others --

"Any given night we have four kids, probably five kids who can score 20 points," Brooks said. "A lot of it is go with the flow of the game and see who has the hot hand." That marks a change in style for a coach who is used to running sets for specific players, a la Jazmon Gwathmey last year.

A few Brooks thumbnails on the mainstays behind Tech's terrific start:

Regan Magarity: "As advertised and then some. " For those JMU readers out there, here's high praise from Brooks about Regan: "Meredith Alexis with a jump shot with the basketball IQ of a Nikki Newman."

Samantha Hill: "She does so many things for us that are so important." Not shooting a great percentage, but making the plays that don't show up on a stat sheet.

Sidney Cook: "Almost a walking double-double," says Brooks, who told the 6-2 senior he needed consistency, and she's delivered.

Now as for Chanette: "When I first got  here, it was not smooth sailing. She had some things she needed to clear up," Brooks said. That said, "I was frank with her and I wasn't being overconfident when I told her, 'I could be the best thing to happen to you because the one position I do know is point guard."

Brooks asked for buy-in from Hicks, and it took time, but she's all in, not just on the floor but off it in terms of being a role model and leader for the rest of the team. "I had to gain her trust by being mean, not coming in and letting her do what she wanted to do."

The results speak for themselves; Hicks has doubled her point total from a year ago while refining her game-changing ability to create turnovers.

"Some of the things she's done -- I've never seen in my life, male or female," the coach said. The break on the ball, the way she steals it, I've had to change my philosophy."

Brooks' JMU teams were in the cellar of the Colonial Athletic Association regularly in the steals category as his approach was to protect the lane. "With her I had to ask myself, 'Do I want to continue doing what I've been doing or let her play?' We've let her play. Sometimes you have to step out of a kid's way and let them play."

Diandra DaRosa: In a boot -- again. An ankle sprain in Nebraska will keep her out Wednesday, but she could return Sunday for Bowling Green.

Kendyl Brooks: He said she'd redshirt, but her results in the weight room -- 10 pounds of muscle -- allowed her to belong among this group of Hokies from the go. "We took the redshirt off because she was getting acclimated to the system better than the other freshmen. She added an element we needed. I knew she belonged when we put her out there against UCF and she had 11 points in a three-point win in a very physical game. She stepped up without an conscience."

The Hokies have also benefited from the recent breakout by senior sharpshooter Vanessa Panousis, who followed up a season-high 17-point effort against Nebraska with a 14-point performance versus Gardner-Webb. Panousis made just eight 3-pointers in Tech's first six games but has six in her last two.

Much-needed depth is on the way as 6-4 senior center Tara Nahodil, who left the team during the offseason, will rejoin the Hokies at the conclusion of the first semester. And Tech is still awaiting word from the NCAA on the status of transfer forward Erin Garner; Tech applied for a waiver that, if granted, would allow Garner to join Nahodil in the Tech lineup at the end of the current semester.

It's all added up to Tech's best start in 11 years. But strong non-conference records are nothing new in Blacksburg. Just last year, the Hokies went 12-1 in November and December with a win at Tennessee.

The question now is, is this the year Virginia Tech also becomes a factor in the ACC?

Not surprisingly, Brooks likes this team's chances.

"This is the kind of year when I put up my Netflix account and watch only basketball," he said. "I've watched a lot of basketball and think there's a lot of teams we can compete with. Why not us? These kids have a different philosophy, a different mindset. Why not us? What happened in the past happened in the past."

Finally, while the coach is clearly laser-focused on his Hokies, he did happen to notice the 46 points Precious Hall dropped on Rutgers Monday night in a double-overtime JMU victory.

"They way she went down (with an ACL injury prior to the 2015-16 season) I never knew how she was going to be able to bounce back," Brooks said. "I'm very happy for her and she deserves it."

Monday, December 5, 2016

Welcome back to the Top 25, Virginia Tech

For the first time in nearly 11 years, Virginia Tech is an Associated Press Top-25 team.

The undefeated Hokies (7-0), who will host Gardner-Webb Monday, are at No. 25 in AP’s latest weekly rankings after a turbulent week involving several of the nation’s top teams. Tech was fifth among “others receiving votes” last week.

The last time Virginia Tech was in the AP Top 25 was Jan. 23, 2006 - 205 polls ago - when the Hokies checked in at No. 25. That 2005-06 season, Tech’s second under then-head coach Beth Dunkenberger, saw the Hokies start out 12-0 and rise as high No. 18 in the poll before a four-game losing streak in ACC play sent them spiraling out of the rankings. Tech went on to finish 6-8 in the ACC and fell to Duke in their conference tournament opener. This was also the last season Tech advanced to the NCAA Tournament, where they beat Missouri before losing to UConn. The Hokies finished the season with a 21-10 record.

The Hokies’ highest-ever ranking is No. 9, which they achieved the week of March 9, 1999. Tech finished that season ranked 13th.

Miami: ODU toughest team we've played all year

Old Dominion may not have beaten No. 18 Miami Sunday, but it sounds as though the Lady Monarchs made believers out of Hurricanes coach Katie Meier.

"I will write the Old Dominion coach (Karen Barefoot)," Meier said in a Miami Herald story. "She is very good. I let her and her team know in the handshake line. They were the toughest team we've played all year...they were the caliber of an ACC team. And Jennie Simms is one of the best players in the country. They're a tough package."

Miami's schedule thus far has included nationally ranked Kentucky and Ohio State along with St. John's and Texas Tech.

The Lady Monarchs (3-3) led by two at halftime Sunday and were down just three through three quarters before the Hurricanes (7-1) surged to their seventh straight win. Simms finished with a game-high 24 points and Destinee Young added 13 points and 12 rebounds. In addition, freshman forward Manaya Jones made her first start and contributed nine points and nine rebounds.

Old Dominion will look to sustain this level - or better yet, to build on it - when the Lady Monarchs host VCU Friday.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Ready or not, here comes Atlantic 10 play

Ready or not, here comes Atlantic 10 conference play.

Changing the league's tournament format necessitated each A-10 team to play one conference game in December, so instead of its typical early-January start, A-10 play for 2016-17 began Thursday (Dec. 1) when host Fordham knocked off Duquesne.

The Atlantic 10 and the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference are the only two Division I leagues to have already kicked off conference play; the MAAC debuted with two games Thursday.

Conference openers for the various A-10 teams are scattered throughout December, so as they say in the broadcast business, check your local listings for the team in your area. As for the squads within the LadySwish coverage map, VCU begins its Atlantic 10 slate Friday at 7 p.m. at George Washington. On Sunday, George Mason plays its A-10 opener at UMass. And Richmond won't start league play until Dec. 31 when the Spiders host St. Joseph's.

Several Atlantic 10 teams have gotten off to solid starts - 10 of the 14 were at .500 or better through November. Yet with the possible exception of George Washington, league teams have struggled to post signature wins. A-10 teams were 0-5 against the Associated Press Top 25 and just 1-13 versus Power 5 conference schools in the opening month.

The Colonials (5-2) just missed against then-No. 11 Syracuse, falling 74-71. But the Colonials do have wins over Princeton and Florida Gulf Coast - both NCAA Tournament teams a year ago - and Conference USA power Western Kentucky.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Matinee games highlight Nov. 30 schedule

Three early tipoff matinees, two home, one road, highlight Wednesday's schedule:

Dartmouth (2-2) at Old Dominion (2-2), 11 a.m.

We're not sure any program does this event better than Old Dominion. More than 7,000 local elementary school students with be on hand of ODU's sixth annual Education Day, a contest that has featured sellout crowds of 8,472 in each of the past two years. The day typically turns out to be a win-win - the kids have a blast, and the Lady Monarchs win comfortably. This Dartmouth squad appears to be a bit stronger than the ones typically invited to play this game, so we'll see what happens.

Dartmouth is coached by former Richmond star Belle Koclanes, who spent three years at Old Dominion from 2008-11 and was part of Wendy Larry's final staff. Koclanes was one of two coaches Larry hired to replace current ODU coach Karen Barefoot, who took the Elon head coaching job, and Marie Christian.

On Thursday, Dartmouth will travel to William and Mary. Playing back-to-back games in different cities is unusual for most teams but quite common in an Ivy League that has weekly conference play on Friday and Saturday.

Iona (2-3) at VCU (4-2), noon

The Rams are coming off a three-games-in-four-days gauntlet that saw them drop an overtime decision to IUPUI last Tuesday before ambushing American on Thanksgiving Day and vanquishing Villanova on Friday. The latter two games were in the Daytona Beach, Fla.-based San Juan Shootout.

Iona is on a three-game losing streak but is 1-1 so far against Atlantic 10 teams. The Gaels dropped a 61-58 decision to Duquesne but scored a 58-57 win over St. Joseph's.

George Mason (3-4) at Detroit (3-3), 11 a.m.

Detroit's second Field Trip Day featuring hundreds of local public schoolers. The inaugural event, in February of 2015, drew a season-high 1,623 fans.

The Patriots arrived in Detroit Tuesday and promptly began to prepare for the unusual environment:

After tough start, Richmond rebounds in style

Our two-word breakdown of Spiders basketball so far:

Preseason: Hmmm... Richmond?

One week in: Poor Richmond.

Two weeks in: Hey, Richmond!

It's been that wild of a ride so far for the resilient Spiders, who answered a discouraging opening seven days with a tournament title to cap a satisfying three-game winning streak.

Spiders coach Michael Shafer cautioned that his team still has a long way to go. A week ago, though, Richmond seemed to be light years away from its goals when, after tough losses to Columbia and Virginia, the Spiders got absolutely waylaid by William and Mary 67-39.

Now, we know William and Mary is a tough team. But...39 points?

"The next morning, I walked into the locker room, sat down and told the players, 'This is all on me,' " Shafer recalled. "And then we just talked about playing together. No screaming, no come-to-Jesus speech. Just an open, candid conversation about how we could improve."

As one might expect, the discussion touched on some common, albeit often elusive themes, such as embracing roles and no one player trying to be Supergirl (except for Janelle Hubbard, who at times IS Supergirl). But it also honed in on one of the specific challenges of these Spiders, who combine three legitimate backcourt stars in Hubbard, Lauren Tolson and Micaela Parson with a cadre of still-developing forwards. In addition to playing well themselves, part of the guards' responsibility, Shafer said, is to help make sure the frontcourt guys get off, too.

"We need to appreciate and value our forwards," Shafer said.

Flashes of improvement  were evident on Nov. 20 when the Spiders finally broke into the win column with a 55-46 win over Appalachian State. But it wasn't until the the second half of Richmond's next game, against Florida A&M, where the sustained level of execution was to the point where the coach could think to himself, "By Jove, I think they've got it!"

The Spiders went on to race past the Rattlers 64-51 Friday in the opener the Florida Atlantic Thanksgiving Tournament. And on Saturday, they claimed the title with a 77-67 triumph over the host FAU.

Not surprisingly, Hubbard was sensational in the tournament, which she capped by dropping 30 on FAU en route to claiming MVP honors. But every Spider nailed her part in this tourney, which featured:

- A career-high 15-point explosion from forward Karleigh Wike (way to pad your part, Karleigh);

- A welcome Wiseman sighting - 9 points and 8 rebounds (both season highs) in the title game from freshman forward Regan Wiseman.

- A breakout, season-high 17 point night from Tolson;

- A Rodmanesque 12-rebound effort from the 5-8 Parson (huh?);

- 8.5 ppg over the two games from freshman forward Jaide Hinds-Clarke.

And on it went. Again, Shafer said there's still plenty of work to be done. But actually winning while you work sure is a lot more fun, isn't it?

Speaking of struggling, next up for Richmond, at Saturday's Navy Classic in Annapolis, Md., is retooling Liberty (0-4). The Lady Flames, who are breaking in virtually an entirely new cast of characters, have experienced the expected getting-to-know-each-other kinks in the early going.

That said, consider this trend:

First game - Liberty loses by 60

Second game - Liberty loses by 14

Third game - Liberty loses by 9

Fourth game - Liberty loses by 2, on a shot at the buzzer.

Be careful Spiders, 'cause these guys are knocking on the door.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Everybody's a winner when Tennessee's in your gym; just ask Va. Tech, JMU

If it seems like yesterday that we wrote a post about Tennessee, then maybe it was, but hey, we're at it again 'cause in case you didn't see Kenny Brooks' Hokies pulled off the upset and beat the Lady Vols 67-63 in Cassell on Sunday afternoon behind 24 points from Chanette Hicks. That's ACC co-Player of the Week and espnW national player of the week Hicks.

As an aside, we've already lamented in a tweet that it makes no sense to us why the Lady Vols remain  in the rankings at No. 22. With wins over East Tennessee, Navy and James Madison (and we're surely not knocking the Dukes) and losses to Penn State and Tech, the Lady Vols have not done enough to prove themselves to be among the top 25 teams in this young season yet. And that is what the poll is measuring, right?

But alas, we digress or do we? Tennessee is still ranked because, well, it's Tennessee. Hicks is player of the week because, well, all those points and eight steals to boot came against Tennessee. And that name, even minus Pat Summitt, who this game so sorely misses, holds mystique that just about every other Division I team that doesn't have UConn across its jersey, lacks. It sells tickets. It grabs headlines. It fills gyms. It gets your league's and ESPN's attention when player of the week honors come rolling around. And we must say, that's pretty cool.

JMU didn't beat Tennessee, but the Convo was electric for almost the entire 40 minutes during a heckuva game to open the season. And you know what? Credit Coach Sean O'Regan for making the call that turned into a home-and-home series, one he didn't anticipate. Tennessee was looking for a game. JMU had an opening. Done deal.

We have to believe Old Dominion fans have a bit of envy this morning. Hicks is a local kid and Tennessee used to be a regular in Norfolk until 2012, but thus farm Lady Monarchs fans have been treated to two MEAC teams to open the season (no knock on the Spartans, either or Hampton, which crosses the river for a tiff next month). These are fans used to seeing the best teams in the nation take a turn at playing in Norfolk, including Tennessee every other year.

Wins against the Lady Vols? Well, Brooks can brag about being 1-0 against them at Tech, but usually they're pretty hard to come by. But know what? You want Tennessee on your schedule because no matter the records or rankings, this sport has two glamour teams and one of them remains the Lady Vols.

Win or lose, with Tennessee in the building, your program can't lose.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

LadySwish fantasy league update - Nov. 28

The first round of our LadySwish fantasy league is in the books. If you missed our introduction and selection of teams, click here. Otherwise, read on to see how things haven shaken out so far.

The teams

Team Vicki - Jennie Simms, Old Dominion; Marlena Tremba, William and Mary; Janelle Hubbard, Richmond; Isis Thorpe, VCU; Vanessa Panousis, Virginia Tech; Tiffany Padgett, George Mason; Da'Lishia Griffin, JMU; Chanette Hicks, Virginia Tech; Alexandra Masaquel, William and Mary; Lauren Tolson, Richmond

Team Paul: Precious Hall, JMU; Malia Tate-DeFreitas, Hampton; Aliyah Huland El, Virginia; Jephany Brown, Hampton; Amber Porter, JMU; Abby Rendle, William and Mary; Janayla White, Radford; Eboni Gilliam, Longwood; Kayla Roberts, Norfolk State; Destinee Young, Old Dominion.

The categories

Points, made 3-pointers, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks.

Round one results

Team Vicki - 4 (points, 3-pointers, assists, steals)

Team Paul - 2 (rebounds, blocks)

Raw totals

Points: Vicki - 635; Paul - 634
3-pointers: Vicki 57, Paul 42
Rebounds: Paul 293, Vicki 272
Assists: Vicki 98, Paul 86
Steals: Vicki 75, Paul 67
Blocks: Paul 46, Vicki 18


Tean Vicki - Chanette Hicks, Virginia Tech
Points, assists, steals (especially steals), even's Chanette Hicks' world these days; the rest of us are just chillin'.

Team Paul: Malia Tate-DeFreitas, Hampton, Precious Hall, JMU
Top two draft picks, top two producers. Figures, right?


Pretty close calls for the most part, especially in a points category Team Paul lost my a mere missed free throw. Having Virginia Tech's Hicks and William and Mary's Masaquel is going to make Team Vicki hard to catch in the steals category, but that squad could use a shot blocker or three. Meanwhile, Team Paul has the low post pretty well locked down but could struggle to keep up with Team Vicki's deeper arsenal of 3-point snipers.

Expansion draft

Vicki: Lauren Moses, Virginia
The Cavaliers leading scorer (14.0 ppg) and a solid rebounder.

Paul: Kara Wright, George Mason
Having a fantastic all-around season for the Patriots.

Round Two began with Monday's Delaware State-William and Mary game and will continue through Sunday's action. Our next update will be Monday, Dec. 5.

Tennessee-Virginia Tech, Round Two

Vanessa Panousis

Welcome back, Lady Vols.

Perennial national power Tennessee,  which opened the 2016-17 season at JMU, will return to the Commonwealth for the second time this month Sunday when the 17th-ranked Lady Vols (3-1) visit Virginia Tech (5-0) at 2 p.m. in Cassell Coliseum.

The eight-time NCAA champion Lady Vols used to make bi-annual visits to Virginia as part of a home-and-home series with Old Dominion that dated back to 1978. But ODU ended that series in 2012 (an idea we weren't crazy about) and hasn't faced one of its most storied rivals ever since.

By contrast, several Hokies are quite familiar with the modern-day Lady Vols. Last season, Tech tattooed Tennessee 57-43 in Knoxville, snapping the home team's 44-game winning streak against unranked non-conference foes.

We're sure the Lady Vols remember - Tennessee coach Holly Warlick made sure of that.

"We're going to bring it up," Warlick said several days ago during her weekly press conference. "We're going to show it. They need to know. They need to feel how they felt after the game, because that style of play and what we did is not acceptable. We're going to understand what we don't need to do. That film will be a great example to us."

In last season's meeting, Tennessee made just 1 of 19 3-pointers as the Lady Vols became increasingly frustrated by Virginia Tech's zone defense and began settling for ill-advised shots.

On Nov. 11, JMU went zone and made similar shots available to Tennessee. The Lady Vols responded by splashing 10 3s during an 81-69 victory. Two days later, they hit 10 more triples in a 30-point home rout of Navy.

But last Sunday, they went just 2 of 19 from deep in a disappointing 70-56 setback at Penn State. We're pretty sure Virginia Tech has reviewed that tape (in addition to talking Xs and Os with his former wingman, JMU head coach Sean O'Regan). So one of the major setups for today is, will Tennessee work to get the shots it wants? Or will the Lady Vols settle for the shots Virginia Tech is cool with them taking?

Last year, Vanessa Panousis went 5 of 8 from 3-point range and led all scorers with 21 points for the Hokies, who trailed Tennessee by a point after three quarters before outscoring the Lady Vols 21-6 over the final 10 minutes.

On Nov. 11, Tennessee led JMU by just two points through three quarters in this year's season opener before pulling away. After the game, Warlick said last year's team probably wouldn't have held on. If pressed, we suspect she would have offered the Tech debacle as Exhibit A to support her claim.

One of Tech's biggest challenges, and not just figuratively, will be dealing with Lady Vols 6-6 center Mercedes Russell, who went for 14 points and 15 rebounds against the Hokies and has been terrific so far in 2016-17.

Tennessee, meanwhile, must come up with an answer for Hokies point guard Chanette Hicks, who has had a sensational run at both ends of the floor in helping the Hokies remain undefeated.

Finally, we're sure Virginia Tech fans will notice the charismatic, classy way the Lady Vols players and coaches (as well as their traveling army of orange-clad fans) conduct themselves throughout their stay in Blacksburg. It's one of the many Tennessee traditions started by the late Pat Summitt that has continued to flourish under Warlick.

Make no mistake - this is still a special program.