Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reflection: Hampton

Jericka Jenkins
This is our fourth in a series of reflections about the 13 Division I teams in our state.

2010-11 season: 25-7, 15-1 MEAC. Regular-season and conference tournament champions. Seeded 13th in NCAA Tournament, lost in first round to No. 4 Kentucky (66-62 OT).

Who's leaving: Starters Quanneisha Perry (12.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg, two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year) and Laura Lewis (4.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Bernadette Fortune (missed most of last season with an ankle injury). In addition, reserves Christy Willis, Breanna Harris and Ryen Henry have all asked for and been granted releases, Hampton coach David Six said.

Who's coming: 
   - Ariel Phelps, 6-2 Jr. F, Louisburg College (Tallwood High). 
   Said Six: "Great athletic body with a 6-6 wingspan, runs the floor well and is a tremendous shotblocker."
   - Brielle Ward, 6-2 Fr. F, Western High (Md.). 
   Six: "Tremendous athlete who can score with either hand around the basket. Can also shoot the jumper up to 17 feet. Excellent defender who is tenacious."
   - Benee Glanton, 6-4 F, Tampa Jefferson (Fla.) 
   Six: College-type body who will take up space with her size, bang and will be an interior force around the basket."
   - Kenyada Brown, 6-2 F, Withrow High (Ohio). 
   Six: Extremely physical post player who runs the floor like a guard. Possesses great body control and has the ability to seal defenders on her back."
   - Kenia Cole, 5-5 Fr. G, Paint Branch High (Md.)
   Six: "Ultra-quick point guard with great ball-handling skills. Can get in the lane off the dribble and finish as well as knock down the three."
   - Candace Brown, 5-9 Fr. G, Hampton High (Va.)
   Six: Powerfully-built, athletic guard with the ability to slash to the basket, finish in traffic and absorb contact. An excellent defender who has the ability to shut down offensive players." 

High point: The season-opening win at James Madison was an eye-opener, and roughing up Howard in the MEAC tourney final was obviously huge. But for national impact, it's hard to beat the Lady Pirates' 69-54 thumping of Florida, the first win over an SEC school in program history.

Low point: On Nov. 23, with star guard Jericka Jenkins nursing an ankle injury, the Lady Pirates were crushed 71-43 by Richmond at the HU Convocation Center. The loss dropped Hampton to 1-3, and the team would slide to 1-4 before Jenkins could suit up again. The rest is Lady Pirates history. 

Program stock: Up. Way up.

We figured the Lady Pirates were on track for a strong season. Little did we know that the team would exceed our lofty projection en route to not only the finest campaign in Hampton's Division I era, but the best by any MEAC team in the 64-team NCAA Tournament era. 

Along the way, Jenkins established herself as one of the top point guards in the country (second in Division I in assists), an honorable mention All-American and the undisputed catalyst of Lady Pirates success. How important was Jenkins? The Lady Pirates went 1-4 when she was out of the lineup, 25-3 when she was in it.

But this was hardly a one-woman outfit. In fact, the beauty of the Lady Pirates was how their players worked together, how they used teamwork and total buy-in of their coach's preachings to outsmart and out-execute supposedly more talented foes. This was a team with no starter taller than 5-11 and with a rotation thinner than the iPad2. Yet they kept walking off the court winners.

After running roughshod though the MEAC for the second straight year, the Lady Pirates were rewarded with a No. 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the highest for a MEAC team since the field expanded to its present format. And while Kentucky escaped the Lady Pirates in their taut first-round encounter, Six said he's been inundated with e-mails and letters praising his Lady Pirates for their performance.

The graduation losses are significant; it would be tough to lose even one player from a unit that worked together so seamlessly. But Six is re-stocking his roster with what he believes may be Hampton's best-ever recruiting class. The coach said he expects to add at least one more impact player to the six listed above within the next week or so. And even more help could be on the way. Former Hampton High star Alyssa Bennett, a 6-2 guard who ESPN ranked the 32nd-best recruit in the country in 2009, is attempting to establish academic eligibility. If she makes it, the Lady Pirates would receive a huge boost.

Either way, there won't be any shortage of talent. But remember, mega-talent isn't how Hampton got where it is. The Lady Pirates played with a "We'll show them" chip on their shoulders last season and seemed to revel in the idea of doing stuff no one thought they could. Well, next season, a lot of people will think they can. Will the Lady Pirates train as hard in the offseason and play as passionately in-season without the "We don't get no respect" wind at their backs?

We're sure Six will insist on it, because in his mind, the Lady Pirates still have a lot of work to do. His oft-stated goal is for Hampton to play at a level so high they'll qualify for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. That would put them among the nation's Top 40 or so teams. Hampton's final RPI was 77.

We'll admit we weren't sure whether to take Six seriously when he first started in with his Hampton gettting an at-large bid talk. But assuming his players remain as hungry as their coach, as remarkable as it seems, they just might make it.

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