Friday, March 17, 2017

Even minus Tate-DeFreitas, Bates and Green, this Hampton team can play a little, too

The last time Hampton visited Duke for an NCAA Tournament game, the Lady Pirates had the nation's best scoring defense, three all-conference performers, including the league's player of the year, and a resume featuring victories over LSU and at Mississippi State.

The Blue Devils won anyway.

Four years later, the Lady Pirates are back in Durham. The defense isn't quite as stingy, the resume not nearly as sterling. And the lone all-conference performer spent the past week wearing a walking boot.

Meanwhile, Duke is still, well, Duke. Clearly, on paper there isn't much to recommend these 15th-seeded Lady Pirates (20-12) when they tip off against the No. 2 Blue Devils (27-5) in an NCAA Tournament first-round game Saturday at 9 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Of course, if the Lady Pirates paid attention to what was "supposed to happen," Bethune-Cookman, North Carolina A&T or some other Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference contender would be in this spot. Instead, much to those teams' chagrin, we now know that even a wounded Hampton team is a menace in the MEAC.

It's not that Hampton didn't miss two-time MEAC Player of the Year Malia Tate-DeFreitas, MEAC All-Rookie team guard Ashley Bates and point guard Chanel Green, all of whom went down with season-ending injuries.

But these healthy Lady Pirates can play, too.

Forward Jephany Brown was a two-time junior college All-American. Guard Monnazjea Finney-Smith, a transfer from VCU, was one of the top players in talent-rich Hampton Roads coming out of high school. Forward Kaylah Lupoe made the All-MEAC team.

Point guard DeJane "Snoop" James went for 16 points and five assists in the MEAC semifinal victory over North Carolina A&T; Aggies coach Tarrell Robinson said James has the potential to become one of the best players in the league. Georgianna Gilbeaux, a senior, has been one of the best defensive players in the conference from the day she arrived on campus.

A case can be made that, even with the injuries, Hampton still boasted arguably the league's best starting five. And then there's pint-sized point guard K'lynn Willis, often a dynamic contributor, and forward Mikayla Sayle, who capably stepped in when Lupoe (ankle) went down with yet another injury in the title game.

As strange as this may seem given all the hits to Hampton's roster, the best team still won the MEAC.

The problem now, is, Duke isn't a MEAC team. And the Blue Devils are especially tough at Cameron - Duke is 16-0 at home this season and has won its last 86 games against unranked teams at home.

"Last year our men's coach Edward Joyner speed-dialed Jesus before they played Kentucky," Lady Pirates coach David Six quipped. "I'm going to ask him to text me that number."

But again, as banged up as Hampton is, it's not as though Six will be sending a JV team out there Saturday night.

Notable nuggets

- When Hampton visited Duke in the 2013 NCAA Tournament first round, the Lady Pirates came in with a 19-game winning streak and a defense that allowed just 47.8 points per game, the fewest in Division I that season and the third-best mark in NCAA D-I history. Yet the Lady Pirates were still seeded 15th, a designation that even Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie considered inaccurate. The Lady Pirates pulled within six points midway through the second half before the Blue Devils pulled away for a 67-51 victory.

- Hampton and Duke also met in the 2010 NCAA first round, again at Duke. The Blue Devils rolled to a 72-37 decision.

- A No. 15 seed has never beaten a No. 2 seed in the NCAA women's tournament. The official count - No. 2 seeds 94, No. 15 seeds 0.

- Duke is an emphatic 5-0 against teams from Virginia this season. How emphatic? The Blue Devils beat Virginia by 19 points, Old Dominion by 28, Virginia Tech by 35, Longwood by 57 and Liberty by 60.

- These teams have had three common opponents in 2016-17. Duke beat Old Dominion by 28 points and South Carolina by nine, both at home, and lost by three at North Carolina State. Hampton lost at Old Dominion by three, at N.C. State by 25 and at South Carolina by (gulp) 54.

Hampton to face Duke (again) in NCAA Tourney

The real deal on JMU's O'Regan: "What you see is what you get"

We thought we knew Sean O'Regan. After all, this blog is growing old at seven years and counting, and we've chitchatted with the first-year Dukes associate head coach over the years when he was an assistant to Kenny Brooks.

Nice guy, we'd say afterward. I mean really nice guy.

If we could use one word to describe O'Regan, it would be genuine, and that's refreshing. You see we're both familiar with coaches whom act one way in front of the cameras and crowds and another way behind closed doors.

Catching up with him at last week's CAA Tournament, we wondered, is he different now? I mean, he's the big boss now. Making the bigger bucks. Sitting in the bigger office. What's he really like? Who could we ask? Would Precious tell us? His assistants?

We checked with his wife, Cara. And here's what it boils down to.

"What you see is what you get," she said.

If anyone knows O'Regan, whose Dukes host Radford in a first-round WNIT game on Friday, it's Cara. Now we'd say that about any spouse, but these two go back really far. How far, exactly, is in dispute, however.

"He claims kindergarten," she said.

She says it was fourth grade. Both agree it was Union Elementary School in Montpelier, Vermont.

Now when we heard that, we had to push for a few more details. Sounds like an episode of "This is Us," right? Especially when she points to the bracelet on her right arm.

"He gave this to me in sixth grade," she said.

They knew each other through high school and connected at times in college, but then lost touch after the first year or so. He's a JMU alum;  she went to Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

But one day they ran into each other back home in Vermont, and the rest is, well, O'Regan history. They've been married nine years and have two cutie-pie children, Addison and Liam.

The kids get a kick out of seeing their dad on the JMU team poster. He remains humble about all of it. O'Regan worked long hours as an assistant, so the days that spill into nights are nothing new, Cara said. He just has more to shoulder as the big cheese instead of the assistant to to the big cheese.

"I tell him, 'Don't tell me you're going to be home at 6 if it's 6:30,' "she said.

Or 7:30, 8:30. Is it 10:30 already?

"He takes a fatherly approach to the team," she said.

And, of course, he's a great dad and hubby at home (pick up the laundry, Coach).

"Truly, he's my best friend," said Cara, who wrapped up Duke Dog cufflinks to celebrate his inaugural head coaching victory. "He's just a really great guy."

Here's what else she told us, but we already knew. He cares. JMU is his alma mater. (Purple, by the way, was her favorite color before she lived in Harrisonburg.) This isn't just another job to these guys or a steppingstone. It's home.

It was hard not to notice his pain last weekend, pulling Hall out to a standing O with 1:34 left in the title game. The embrace was long, heartfelt, memorable. He answered every question postgame, taking that painful gulp when talking about losing a championship on your home floor.

But soon enough he was pumping JMU up, excited about the opportunity to play more basketball. There's more season left, and O'Regan will ensure his players understand that.

 We wrote earlier in the year that he was the right guy for the job. We stand by it. JMU's loss in the CAA title game was indeed disappointing. But the Dukes still have a chance to make a statement -- to produce a magical run as they did in 2012 when they advanced to the WNIT final. It was a run that laid a foundation for what turned into a trio of NCAA tournament appearances.

In his first season, O'Regan guided JMU to one win shy of an NCAA tournament. He didn't have reigning CAA Rookie of the Year Kayla Cooper-Williams, who went down in the preseason with an ACL tear. Starter Da'Lishia Griffin left the team in December after eight games.

O'Regan was still able to get this team to the finish line, and next year, we believe he'll finish.

Next year he'll have two more seasoned guards in Kamiah Smalls and Lexie Barrier. Cooper-Williams should be healed and Kelly Koshuta will be eligible. Perhaps he'll have a bunch of WNIT wins, maybe even a trophy, to give these Dukes the confidence they need in a conference that's gotten deeper and better since the day of Old Dominion domination.

Whatever the case, he'll have Cara in his corner or shall we say three rows behind press row opposite the bench.

Just like him, she's the genuine sort, easy to get to know. We leave you with the funniest part of our whole chat.

While Cara and Sean didn't go to prom together, they were high school classmates.
During their senior year, "he was vice president of the class," she said.

"I was president."

Thursday, March 16, 2017

CNU, Virginia Union stay on championship course

CNU is in its second Final Four in six years.

Two Virginia schools will continue their pursuit of national titles in the days ahead.

On Friday, seventh-seeded Christopher Newport will meet top-seeded and undefeated Amherst (31-0) in the Division III Final Four at 7:30 p.m. in Grand Rapids, Mich. And on Tuesday, sixth-seeded Virginia Union will try to invite itself to the Division II Final Four when the Lady Panthers meet No. 3 Columbus State in an Elite Eight matchup at noon in Columbus, Ohio.

The Division III Captains (29-2) will be making their second Final Four appearance in six years. The 2011 Christopher Newport squad, led by four-time All-American guard Chelsie Schweers, finished third in the nation. Ironically, those Captains were stopped by a 31-1 Amherst team in the national semifinals.

This marks the fourth time in five seasons under head coach Bill Broderick that the Captains have reached at least the Sweet 16. Broderick was named the Mid-Atlantic Coach of the Year by

Click here for more information about the Captains and links to the Final Four coverage.

Virginia Union (26-4) earned its second straight Elite Eight berth on Monday by downing host and top-seeded California (Pa.) 85-69 in the Atlantic Region title game. Senior foward/center Lady Walker, the CIAA's Player and Defensive Player of the Year, led the way with a season-high 32 points and 10 rebounds.

Last year, the Lady Panthers were led by dynamic guard Kiana Johnson, a transfer from Michigan State who led the nation in points and assists and was named the Division II Player of the Year.

Virginia Union prevailed in Pennsylvania despite the absence of star guard Brittany Jackson (18.4 ppg), who was suspended for a violation of team rules and did not make the trip.

Elite Eight opponent Columbus State (31-1) won the Southeast Region by dispatching Lincoln Memorial 86-75.

The ABC's of the 2017 WNIT

The WNIT kicked off Wednesday, and four Virginia schools will begin Friday with first-round games in the 64-team tournament. Here's what you need to know:

Virginia teams in the field - Radford, JMU, Virginia, Virginia Tech

First-round pairings (Virginia schools):

Radford (24-8) at JMU (24-8), Friday, 7 p.m.

Rider (24-8) at Virginia Tech (17-13), Friday, 7 p.m.

Virginia (19-12) at St. Joseph's (17-14, Friday, 7 p.m.

Three keys to WNIT play

Momentum - If you're talking about the positive kind, in the WNIT first round, there's no such thing. Every team in the field is coming off a loss. So in this tournament, no one is trying to build off what just happened. The goal is to build something new.

Motivation - A tricky, at times elusive concept for this event. For some players, a WNIT bid is a coveted reward for a successful season. Others really enjoy playing together and relish the opportunity for more games. But for others, the WNIT is painful consolation after a season geared toward making the NCAAs. And some are just worn out after a long season and would really rather be doing something else. Everybody says the right stuff in the lead-up. But we usually don't learn who really wants to do this until the games begin.

Home court advantage - Since the WNIT expanded to 64 teams in 2010, the home team has won roughly 89 percent of first-round games. Keep that in mind when filling out your WNIT bracket.

You ARE filling out a WNIT bracket, right? You can borrow one here, in case you misplaced yours.

RPI nuggets

Highest RPIs in the field - South Dakota State (38); JMU (41); Central Michigan (43)

Lowest RPIs in the field - Grambling (201); Sacred Heart (202); Seattle (215)

Lowest RPI to receive at-large bid - Louisiana Tech (139)

Note: The RPI of Old Dominion, like Louisiana Tech a member of Conference USA, was 136. Had ODU won its regular season finale against UTSA, the Lady Monarchs would have nabbed the fourth seed in the C-USA Tournament. Instead, the Lady Techsters claimed that spot and positioned themselves for that last WNIT at-large bid. We knew that UTSA loss was damaging. Turns out it may have been even more damaging than we realized.

Surprise omissions

Not sure why Stephen F. Austin (25-7, RPI 89) or Buffalo (22-10, RPI 98, six wins over teams in the WNIT field) didn't get invited. Stephen F. Austin accepted a bid to the WBI. We also would have liked to have seen them find a spot for William and Mary (20-11, RPI 125), which closed with four straight victories, including decisions over WNIT-bound JMU and Drexel, before falling in the CAA Tournament semifinals to Elon.

Breaking it down

Radford at JMU

Both teams were denied a conference title (and NCAA Tournament bid) on Sunday, so it will be interesting to see if each can avoid any emotional hangover. JMU will be playing its sixth straight game at home. Based on the quality of the Dukes' season, relative to this field, the WNIT's hosting guidelines and the school's willingness to bid for home games in previous years, it's conceivable that JMU could continue hosting as long as it remains in the tournament. Of course, Radford aims to make that a one-game deal. The Highlanders have played six straight games decided by three points or fewer/overtime and have had three games end by a final score of 49-48 - including Sunday's heartbreaking loss to UNC Asheville in the Big South final - since Feb. 7. Given both teams' stingy defenses, no one should be surprised to see another low-scoring affair unfold.  But JMU has a fifth gear on offense, and if the Dukes find it, the Highlanders may be hard-pressed to keep up - especially at JMU.

Up next: The winner plays Friday's St. Joseph's-Virginia winner in the second round.

Rider at Virginia Tech

The Hokies will have gone 16 days without a game when they tip off Friday. The sense here is that in this case, the break was probably a good thing for a team that got caught in a vicious downward spiral - losses in 12 of its final 13 games - in the rugged ACC. That said, Virginia Tech still hasn't lost to a non-ACC opponent this season (13-0). If the Hokies haven't been beaten down by what happened the last couple months, this feels like the type of challenge they were successfully navigating in November and December. Rider is one of those teams for which making the WNIT is a major achievement as this is the first such bid in the program's history. The Broncs' 24 wins are the most in a single season at Rider since 1981-82.

Up next: The winner plays Friday's Navy-George Washington winner in the second round.

Virginia at St. Joseph's

On resume the Cavaliers, who narrowly missed out on an NCAA at-large bid, grade out as one of the best teams in this tournament. So it's odd to see them opening play on the road. But Virginia apparently does not bid for home games is this tournament as this is the third straight season the Cavs will kick off WNIT play in someone else's building. It worked out last season, albeit barely, as the Cavaliers traveled to Richmond and rallied from nine points down over the final 6:15 to stun VCU 52-50 in first round action. Virginia added a second victory at Rutgers before bowing in the third round at Hofstra. St. Joe's features former Cavaliers Amanda Fioravanti (8.5 ppg), who transferred after just one semester, and Jaryn Garner (tied for the team high in assists), Fioravanti in particular figures to be extremely motivated to perform well Friday.

Up next: The winner plays Friday's Radford-JMU winner in the second round.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"The Shot" in the NCAA tournament belongs to Elon's coach. Now Phoenix are NCAA-bound

The biggest shot all time in a women's basketball game? Are you thinking Kristi Toliver's stepback 3 over 6-foot-7 Alison Bales in the 2006 national championship game? Without it, Duke almost surely would have won its first NCAA title. With it, Maryland forces overtime and of course, the Terps prevail.

We've got one better. North Carolina and Louisiana Tech faced off in the national championship at the Richmond Coliseum. It was 1994.

The shot they called "The Shot" belongs to Charlotte Smith. She drained a 3 off an inbound pass at the buzzer lifting North Carolina to the national championship 60-59 over the Lady Techsters. It was Sylvia Hatchell's only national title and it came on Easter Sunday.

Last weekend, Smith, now the coach of Elon, celebrated another feat when her Phoenix won their first CAA tournament championship, earning the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Phoenix, an 11 seed, will play No. 6 West Virginia on Friday in College Park, Md.

Elon has never been to the NCAA tournament and had to knock out host James Madison, a team it had lost to twice during the regular season, to achieve the feat. The Phoenix left no doubt at a JMU Convocation Center decked out in purple, knocking out the Dukes 78-60.

Smith is humble about "The Shot." When asked initially about which moment was bigger -- that memory or reaching this milestone with Elon -- apples and oranges was her initial answer. But she had more to offer.

"I just have to compartmentalize it and separate it. But hitting the game winner to win the national championship is a whole other level. That's huge."

On the other hand . . .

"I'm so super excited for my team. I've wanted them to experience this for a very long time. For six years I've been working hard to try to position a team to be able to feel what I felt as a player. It's a great feeling. It's something that someone can never take away from you."

With a look at the players seated next to her on the podium, she said,  "You will always be the 2017 CAA champions"

"I've pushed them so hard because I believe in this team. I believe in the gifts that I've been blessed with and it was my responsibility to bring it out of them even if it was pushing them at times they didn't understand.

"Coach Hatchell did the same thing for me. She pushed us even when we didn't understand. She wanted more. She wanted more and always pushed for excellence. In order to be a champion, you have to stay hungry. You always have to strive for excellence."

As well as Elon played, Smith wasn't generous about heaping praise on her team until the final buzzer. Even so, she promised to study the tape from the championship to point out to the Phoenix what they could have done even better. Not surprising that she recently re-watched that '94 title game and despite her 23 rebounds -- "I know of five more I could have gotten."

Good stuff, Coach. Or better yet, excellent. In '94 and last Saturday, too.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Hampton to face Duke (again) in NCAA Tourney

The slammin' DJ. The giant video screen streaming ESPN's broadcast. And the ballroom full of blue and white-clad well-wishers, with the glistening MEAC championship trophy parked center stage.

Yep, it seemed like ol' times again at Hampton, where after a two-year absence the Lady Pirates women's basketball team celebrated its return to the NCAA Tournament - and learned what happens next - on Selection Monday at the HU student center ballroom.

The Lady Pirates (20-12) are seeded 15th and travel to No. 2 Duke for a first round game Saturday. It's the third time since 2010 the Lady Pirates have visited Duke for a first-round NCAA game. The Blue Devils won both prior meeting.

Obviously, the task is daunting again. But so was the road Hampton traveled to make it this far.

Shindigs like Mondays had become an annual tradition at Hampton, which ripped off five straight MEAC titles from 2010-14. But the Lady Pirates were picked off in the MEAC Tournament the past two seasons, and their bid for a return to glory took a major hit in January when two-time MEAC Player of the Year Malia Tate-DeFreitas went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Two other starters would join Tate-DeFreitas on the sideline. And in Saturday's final, forward Kaylah Lupoe, the Lady Pirates' only All-MEAC performer, rolled her ankle early in the second quarter and couldn't continue. Somehow, Hampton still prevailed, holding off top-seeded Bethune-Cookman 52-49 to secure the program's ninth NCAA Division I bid and sixth under head coach David Six.

"These ladies on the platform were the only ones who believed we could do it," said an emotional Six, who choked up as he reflected on the journey. "This is the sixth championship, but it's by far the best championship we've had since I've been here."

MEAC schools are 1-25 in the NCAA Tournament, largely because the conference's representative almost always is among the lowest seeds and has usually been assigned a true road game against a national power.

The conference's lone NCAA victory came in 1983 when South Carolina State knocked off La Salle in one of four opening round games. As a reward, the Bulldogs advanced to meet - and get smoked by - top-seeded Tennessee.

No MEAC team was invited to the tournament again until 1984, when the field expanded to 64 teams and each of the 32 D-I conferences received an automatic bid.

Hampton is 0-8 in the NCAAs, falling in the first round each time after winning the conference tournament. No MEAC team has ever received an at-large bid.

"We're going to celebrate the fact that we're champions," Six said. "And when the time is right, we're going to compete like we've never competed before. I know we will, because I've already seen it."

Hampton NCAA results

2000 - 16-15 record, 16th seed, lost at No. 1 UConn 116-45

2003 - 23-9, 15th seed, lost to No. 2 Texas 90-46

2004 - 17-11, 16th seed, lost to No. 1 Penn State 79-42

2010 - 20-12, No. 15 seed, lost to No. 2 Duke 72-37

2011 - 26-7, No. 13 seed, lost to No. 4 Kentucky 62-66 (ot)

2012 - 26-5, No. 16 seed, lost to No. 1 Stanford 73-51

2013 - 28-6, No. 15 seed, lost to No. 2 Duke 67-51

2014 - 28-5, No 12 seed, lost to No. 5 Michigan State 91-61 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Hampton moves one step closer to MEAC title

DeJane James - Snoop to the hoop!

Hampton had "Snoop."

North Carolina A&T had the oops. 

Consequently, the third-seeded Lady Pirates are moving on to Saturday's MEAC final.


Sophomore point guard DeJane "Snoop" James had 16 points and five assists as Hampton held off the No. 7 Aggies 64-62 in Friday's MEAC semifinals,, but not before a dramatic A&T rally ate up all but one point of a 14-point Lady Pirates lead. 

"That was like one of those boxing matches where we were on the ropes," Hampton coach David Six said with a relieved smile. "If there had been one more round, I don't know..."

The Aggies made all 10 of their fourth quarter field goals and actually had a chance to set up a game-tying 3-pointer with 4.5 seconds left. Instead, they curiously settled for a 2-point layup as the clock dwindled down to less than a second.

The Lady Pirates (19-12) will face top-seeded Bethune-Cookman (21-9) in Saturday's 3 p.m. MEAC final.

A&T scored 29 points in that fourth quarter, but managed just 33 in the first three quarters combined in the face on a dazzlingly disruptive Hampton pressure defense. Indeed, at times it was as though six Lady Pirates were on the floor - at least it must have seemed that way to the Aggies, who committed 30 turnovers.

Hampton's defensive tenacity came at a cost, though, as foul trouble dogged the Lady Pirates throughout. Jephany Brown, who scored 20 points in Thursday's quarterfinal to establish a season high for the third straight game, picked up three fouls in the first half and played just five minutes in the second before fouling out. Kaylah Lupoe, Hampton's All-MEAC forward, played just 11 minutes before fouling out with 3:40 left in the fourth quarter. And exactly one second after Lupoe sat down, her backup, Mikayla Sayle, picked up her fifth and grabbed a seat, too.

But with the Aggies surging and Brown, Lupoe and Sayle unavailable, James - nicknamed Snoop after a character on the HBO series "The Wire" - and her sophomore backcourt partner-in-stature K'lynn Willis (also 5-3) kept things from getting away. Both displayed sure handles, the courage to attack and the confidence to knock down free throws. 

James scored 12 of her 16 points in the fourth quarter and Willis finished with 11 - those two were the only Lady Pirates to score in double figures. The "Mighty-Mites," as Six called them, also combined to make 12 of 15 free throws. 

Asked why his young guards could play with so much poise on such a big stage, Six referenced a non-conference schedule that included trips to Northwestern, Iowa, N.C. State and South Carolina - all before Thanksgiving.

"The stakes are higher," Six said. "But they've played in big games before."

If there's a bright side to Hampton's foul problems Friday, it's that starters Brown and Lupoe, who played nearly the entire game in Thursday's quarterfinals, were unable to extend themselves against the Aggies and may have a bit extra in the tank in Saturday's final.

Bethune-Cookman defeated Hampton 66-56 in the teams' lone regular season meeting on Feb. 18 in Daytona Beach, Fla. The Lady Pirates shot just 26.8 percent from the field and fell despite forcing 35 Wildcat turnovers. 

Saturday's winner will receive the MEAC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Related: Hampton survives and advances in MEAC tourney

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Hampton survives and advances in MEAC tourney

Thanks to injuries, Hampton no longer has a lot of players.

But the Lady Pirates may have just enough players - and talent - to make another run at a MEAC Tournament title.

Third-seeded Hampton kept its championship bid in play Thursday by downing No. 11 Maryland-Eastern Shore 66-56 in the quarterfinals at Norfolk's Scope. Jephany Brown scored a season-high 20 points and Monnazjea Finney-Smith added 17 for the Lady Pirates, who won their fourth straight and set up a semifinal date with No. 7 North Carolina A&T (15-17) Friday at approximately 2:30 p.m.

The Lady Pirates (18-12) blew a 21-point lead and fell to UMES by three when the teams met in the regular season. And while Hampton trailed for only nine seconds Thursday, the quarterfinal wasn't without one first-game flashback. Hampton shot out to a 12-2 lead and were up by 11 in the second quarter, only to see UMES chip away and seize a 30-29 advantage with 28 seconds left in the half. A few seconds later, though, James found Mikayla Sayle underneath for a transition layup to send the Lady Pirates into the break up 31-20. Hampton would not trail again.

The victory was Hampton's fourth straight and further demonstrated the resiliency of a group that has been rocked by injuries at the most important time of the season.

There's a tendency to assume that, since Hampton won five straight MEAC Tournament titles from 2009-13, that this team can draw on its championship pedigree. In fact, of the current active roster, only senior guard Georgianna Gilbeaux remains from any of Hampton's title-winning team.

This isn't even the same Hampton team that toppled NCAA Tournament-bound Temple in December. Since then, two-time MEAC Player of the Year Malia Tate-DeFreitas, all-rookie team selection Ashley Bates and point guard Chanel Green has all been lost for the season due to injuries.

As a result, of Hampton's five starters Thursday, forward Kaylah Lupoe logged the fewest minutes - she played 36. Finney-Smith and Gilbeaux never came out of the game. Hampton's two reserves, Sayle and K'lynn Willis, combined to play seven of the possible 200 minutes.

After the game, Hampton coach David Six credited his players for their willingness to do whatever it takes.

"They haven't complained about it, they haven't cried about it," Six said. "They just go out and play."

Whether or not the players can sustain that workload and still perform at or near peak efficiency for potentially two more games on consecutive days remains to be seen. But it a league where there appears to be a good bit of parity among the top teams, the crew Hampton has left just might be enough.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Sizing up ODU in the Conference USA tourney

Once again, Old Dominion will have to do this the hard way.

After a disappointing performance in Saturday's regular season finale against UTSA cost them a first round bye, the sixth-seeded Lady Monarchs will begin what shapes up as a daunting road to a Conference USA Tournament title against No. 11 UTEP Wednesday at 10 p.m. at UAB's Bartow Arena.

This marks the fourth time in its four seasons in C-USA the Lady Monarchs have finished outside of the league's top four - those teams get to sit out the first round - and had to face a four-games-in-four-days championship gauntlet.

The Lady Monarchs do have some things going for them. They feature the best player in the league (and one of the best in the country) in Jennie Simms, and the conference's best rebounder in All-Conference USA forward Destinee Young. Those two front a roster loaded with conference tournament experience. And with Karen Barefoot as coach, there's never a shortage of optimism and want-to.

Also, for what it's worth, recent tournament history suggests the Lady Monarchs may be trending toward a championship breakthrough. In 2014, ODU's debut season in C-USA, 2014, the Lady Monarchs lost in the quarterfinals. The following year, they reached the semifinals where they nearly upended top-seeded Western Kentucky. And last year, they won their first three games, a run highlighted by a semifinal-round upset of No. 1 UTEP, before bowing to Middle Tennessee in the title game.

Indeed, in the last two seasons in particular Old Dominion has saved its best basketball for Birmingham.

Still, the sobering reality is that, to this point, Old Dominion has underachieved relative to its talent. You know that sports axiom, "you are what your record says you are?" Well, 16-13, 11-7 in conference and a 130 RPI are numbers that accurately depict the type of regular season the Lady Monarchs produced. And while the team has produced several solid performances this season, Old Dominion is 0-7 against teams in the RPI Top 100. To win this tournament, odds are the Lady Monarchs will have to beat two such teams.

Can the Lady Monarchs once again take it up another level in the postseason?

We'll see. But this much is clear - if the Lady Monarchs plan on returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, they're going to have to.

Other pertinent questions:

How damaging was Saturday's 81-68 home loss to UTSA?

Well, in addition to costing the team the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye, the loss moved ODU out of a bracket in which the potential matchups were relatively favorable (Charlotte/Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky) and resigned them to a path in which their projected matchups are distinctly unfavorable (Southern Miss, Middle Tennessee).  It placed an extra game's demand on Simms, whose brilliant play has masked the fact that she's been dealing with a nagging ankle injury for weeks. And it set an ominous tone regarding ODU's ability to come up big when the stakes are high.

Other than that, not too damaging.

What happened in that UTSA game?

The Lady Monarchs appeared extremely keyed up to play Saturday - not surprising on a Senior Day - and their boundless enthusiasm may have actually worked against them early. They settled in, though, and actually took control of things early in the third quarter. The Roadrunners simply outplayed ODU the rest of the way.

Barefoot pointed to a parade of missed shots, and it's true the Lady Monarchs couldn't hit the floor with their hats in that fourth quarter. But the Roadrunners also shot 60.6 percent in the second half. From where we sat, the poor shooting was secondary; the larger concern was Old Dominion's inability to find solutions defensively as the game wore on. This, after all, is a team that prides itself on stopping people.

So, just how daunting is the road ahead?

The opener against UTEP actually provides an excellent opportunity to establish some tournament momentum. Last Thursday against these same Miners, a Lady Monarchs team bristling with confidence rolled to a 19-point victory. Old Dominion probably won't shoot 60 percent from the field again. But if they execute even reasonably close to the way they did against UTEP less than a week ago, the Miners figure to be hard-pressed to keep up.

But up next is No. 3 Southern Miss, whose tenacious full-court pressure style discombobulated Old Dominion when the teams met in Hattiesburg on Jan. 12. The Lady Monarchs actually shot 50 percent from the field and hit nine 3-pointers. But they also committed 29 turnovers which led to 33 Southern Miss points and an 84-69 defeat.

Two weeks earlier, against a Syracuse team that also features end-to-end pressure, ODU coughed it up 31 times in a 92-66 loss. So far, pressure has brought out the worst in this Old Dominion team.

Should they survive Southern Miss, odds are that No. 2 Middle Tennessee (RPI 81) would await in the semifinals. The Raiders have an elite point guard in Ty Petty and a low-post stud in Alex Johnson. Old Dominion had no answer for either in the teams' long regular season encounter; MTSU won by 17 at Old Dominion.

Produce another upset and all that would stand between ODU and the title, if form holds, is No. 1 Western Kentucky (RPI 40), the only conference team the Lady Monarchs have yet to defeat since joining the league four years ago (0-7).

So to sum it up, to become C-USA champions the Lady Monarchs will definitely have to overcome a team that plays a style that gives them fits and then likely have to knock off at least one and possibly two teams that have resumes significantly better than anyone they've beaten this season.

A daunting road, indeed.

Is there precedent for a team winning four games in four days to take the title?

In 2013, the year before Old Dominion joined Conference USA, No. 6 Tulsa won on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday to claim the crown. Now, it probably helped that Tulsa faced the No. 8 seed in the final. And that Tulsa hosted the tournament. But yes, it has happened.

What happens if Old Dominion doesn't win this tournament?

We're certainly not WNIT bracketologists (is anyone?), but generally speaking, teams that finish with a .500 or better record and have RPIs inside the top 120 historically have been in excellent shape for  WNIT bids should they not make the NCAAs. As noted earlier, ODU's RPI is currently 130, and beating UTEP (299) may actually make it worse. Our sense is that the Lady Monarchs need at least two victories this week to lobby for a WNIT bid with a straight face.

Of course, if they can get four victories, the Lady Monarchs will be picking confetti out of their hair and none of this will matter.

Old Dominion with Jennie Simms (2014-17)

Overall record - 54-43 (52-42 with Simms in the lineup)
Conference record - 32-22
Highest C-USA Tournament seed - No. 5 (twice)
Conference tournament titles - 0
NCAA Tournament appearances - 0
WNIT appearances - 1 (reached 2nd round in 2015)

Saturday, March 4, 2017

ODU's Destinee Young an under-the-radar star

When it comes to Old Dominion's Destinee Young, you pretty much know what you're going to get.

You just may not realize how much you're actually getting.

In Thursday night's 19-point romp over UTEP, for example, we couldn't stop marveling at Jennie Simms' feathery floaters and Ticha-esque no-look dimes en route to her 30-point, 7-assist night. And we had no quarrel with the ODU Radio Network's decision to acknowledge the enhanced contributions of Ashley Jackson (12 points, six rebounds, four assists) and tab her the "Star of the Game."

It took scanning the box score to realize that Young had flirted with a triple-double before "settling" for 14 points, 14 rebounds and seven (!) blocks.

We doubt any of this fazed Young, who generally treats bids for personal glory the way she did those seven UTEP shots. So it's been kind of an under-the-radar career for Young, Young, the rugged 6-1 (more or less) rebounding machine who with little fanfare has quietly churned out boards numbers that place her alongside some of the greats in Lady Monarchs history.

Did you know, for instance, that Young's current average of 11.0 rebounds per game is the highest by a Lady Monarch in 20 years, since Nyree Roberts hauled down 12.0 per night in 1997-98? Or that Young recently passed the great Nancy Lieberman for seventh on the all-time ODU list for rebounds by a senior (307)? Or that she needs just 12 more to vault past Celeste Hill (311) and Kelly Lyons (318) and into the top five?

Now, we certainly didn't get any of these stats from Young, who while unfailingly polite turns out to be as poor at cataloging her highlight reel as she is great at filling it up.

Remember that amazing spin move for a layup you pulled off earlier in the season?

"Uh, no, not really. I’m glad it amazed you, though.”

How about your first game as a Lady Monarch. Had to be emotional. What stands out as you look back?

"Sorry, I don't remember it."

It's a good thing this biology major, who is on track to graduate in May, has her heart set on becoming a dentist. She has no future in sports information.

Then again, to Young, all this personal trivia is, well trivial.

"At the end of the day, it's all about winning the game, right?" Young said.

Let the record show that Young has no problem walking the walk to put teeth in such talk. Two weeks ago at Charlotte, Young appeared to be on track for a big offensive night after scoring eight points in the opening three minutes. But her greatest contribution came in the second half, when the post anchor slid out to the perimeter and slapped a defensive glove on Charlotte’s versatile Grace Hunter, who had lit up ODU in the opening 20 minutes. Young scored just one point in the second half of the Lady Monarchs’ 72-70 victory, But because of the work she did in keeping Hunter in check, Lady Monarchs assistant Jim Corrigan called it the best one-point half he’d ever seen.

“Yeah, I think I heard that,” Young said with a smile.

It’s also not a coincidence that probably Young’s most productive statistical performance - 28 points and 15 rebounds last year against Howard - came in a game where Simms and starting center Ije Ajemba were unavailable. Granted, Howard didn’t exactly have Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins defending the low post. But hey, 28 and 15 is 28 and 15.

“Being a leader, I just felt it was on me to step up.” Young said.

This selfless, do-whatever-it-takes approach has been a trademark of Young's play ever since she arrived from the northwest suburbs of Chicago four years ago. Although a solid contributor as a freshman, Young made it clear she didn't leave Illinois to merely be solid. So during the ensuing offseason, Young threw herself into CrossFit training and intense basketball workouts. She also switched to an ultra-healthy diet, which in Young's case meant making the ultimate sacrifice for a college student - giving up Chipotle.

"I love Chipotle," Young said. "But I had to get right."

The payoff came that fall when a learner, more confident Young re-introduced herself to Old Dominion. Before the season began, Young's teammates voted her a captain, a honor rarely bestowed upon a sophomore. By early December, Young had cracked the first five. She's been one of the team's on-court mainstays and locker room leaders ever since.

Her development continued to the point where now she's making her mark on the national scene. Young is currently one of only 25 players in Division I to average a double-double (11.3 points, 11.0 rebounds). The rebounding average leads Conference USA and ranks ninth in Division I. And no one in C-USA and only 15 D-I players nationally have more than Young's 15 double-doubles.

No wonder Young's 14 and 14 against UTEP the other night went down so quietly - for her, it's only a couple ticks better than a routine night.

That said, there’s nothing routine about Young’s pursuit of a missed shot. Although somewhat undersized for a post player, she excels at positioning herself for rebounds, has nice hops and applies such a vise-like grip you almost feel sorry for the basketball.

In addition, since Young brings a relentless "that ball is mine" mentality to the boards, there's risk involved in battling her for a carom - be you friend or foe.

"I stiff-armed AJ (Jackson) last game," Young said sheepishly. "I thought she was on the other team. She wasn't."

Old Dominion fans will get a final time to appreciate Young’s understated excellence - and funky, World B. Free-style overhead jump shot - Saturday when the Lady Monarchs host UTSA in their “Senior Day” regular season finale. The game will also be the Constant Center curtain call for:

Annika Holopainen, the Finland native-turned fitness queen who started out in November in a reserve role but changed the trajectory of her campaign by shedding 13 pounds in the middle of the season and blossoming into a key contributor. Old Dominion has gone 8-3 since the now-lean Holopainen injected herself into the starting five;

Rhaven Kemp, the ultra-athletic reserve point guard, on-the-ball defensive pest and lively locker room presence - Young called her one of the funniest players on what is apparently a team of comedians behind closed doors.

"You never know what she's going to say," Young said.

And of course, the incandescent Simms, who these days seemingly reaches a fresh milestone with each dribble.

Odds are that today, Simms will produce her typical share of “wow” moves. Holopainen will deliver a spectacular spectacular finisher around the rim, and Kemp will produce at least one ankle-breaking crossover or “where’d-that-come-from” 3-pointer.

But here’s hoping fans pay extra attention as Young efficiently goes about her business.

Because while not a lot has been said about it, all season long that business has been booming.