Monday, April 25, 2011

Reflection: Radford

Da'Naria Erwin Spencer
2010-2011 season: 14-16 overall, 11-5 Big South (tied for 2nd); Earned No. 2 seed in Big South Tournament via tiebreaker, lost in first round to Winthrop.

Who's leaving: Denay Wood (9.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Kaylyn Crosier (3.6 ppg, 1.4 rpg); Brooke McElroy (9.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg); Ciara Hayes 2.4, 1.9 rpg); 

Who's coming: 
Ayana Avery, 5-5 guard, West Rowan (N.C.): Averaged 19.5 points and scored a school-record 1,995 in her four-year career; Jordynn Gaymon, 6-1 forward, Sun Valley (N.C.): Averaged 16.4 points and 12.2 rebounds. An All-District 9 first-team selection by the North Carolina Basketball Coaches Association.; Ashia Holmes, 5-8 guard, Salisbury (N.C.): Averaged 10 points, 6 steals and 7 rebounds and was the catalyst for Salisbury's 2A state championship team. Named championship game MVP and regional tournament MVP. One of four Division I starters on the team; the fifth starter was highly touted freshman Brielle Blair, the player who reportedly was offered a scholarship by Virginia Tech, among others, before she entered high school. Has a twin sister, Ayanna, who has signed with Charlotte.; Kiera McIvor, 5-9 guard, Dudley (N.C.): Averaged about 8 ppg as part of a balanced attack on a powerhouse (25-2) Dudley squad. Described by coach Tajama Ngongba as "a true game-changer."; Dominique Powell, 6-2 center, Archbishop Carroll (Washington D.C.): Ngongba:  “Dominique is another athletic post player. We will look to her to be a future enforcer in the paint. Her big wing span will give her an advantage in scoring, rebounding and defending on the inside.”

High point: The 2010-11 Highlanders accomplished something previous Radford teams - or any other Big South team for that matter, rarely pulls off - beating Liberty in Lynchburg. Radford's 62-53 triumph on Jan. 17 was the program's first at the Vines Center since 1996. But for pure emotion, it probably didn't get much better than when the Highlanders rallied on the road to beat former Radford coach Jeri Porter and her George Mason Patriots.

Low point: On Dec. 30, the Highlanders committed 34 turnovers in a 73-50 loss at home to Richmond to fall to 4-10. We didn't like where the season appeared to be heading.

Program stock: Movin' on up.

Of all the teams we follow here at LadySwish, none is tougher to get a read on than this Highlanders bunch.  When they split their first four games, capped by that stirring win at George Mason, we thought, OK, looks like they've got things figured out.

Then they dropped their next eight against Division I opponents.

Well, maybe next year....

Then they won their Big South opener (as always) en route to a 7-1 start in conference play.

Whoa! The Highlanders are for real! Now if they can just....

Then they lost three straight to slide out of the conference lead.

Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted....

Then they rattled off four straight victories, two in overtime, and took eventual tournament champion Gardner-Webb to yet another overtime in the regular-season finale.

Number two seed in the conference tourney? Sweet! We know they'd love another shot at Gardner-Webb in the semis, or Liberty in the final. Can't wait to see how....

Then they bombed in the first round of the conference tourney, shooting a measly 22 percent in a 21-point loss to No. 7 Winthrop.

Busch Gardens doesn't have roller-coasters that wild. Take away that absolute stinker at the end, though, and it's clear the Highlanders have removed most of the debris from last season's 6-23 finish and re-established themselves among the contenders in the Big South. It's as though the players have finally embraced third-year coach Tajama Abraham Ngongba's program and realized, hey, this stuff really works!

The season featured the continued development of sophomore Da'Naria Erwin Spencer, a first-team All-Big South pick who finished among the conference's top six players in points (14.3), assists, steals and free-throw percentage and dropped a career-high 30 on Presbyterian. The Highlanders also benefited from a full season from Brooke McElroy, the 6-0 redshirt senior who was unavailable after the first 9 games in 2009-10 but went the distance last season and finished third on the team in scoring (9.0 ppg) while being by far the Highlanders' best rebounder (7.3 rpg).

Still, Radford's signature remains its disruptive, ball-hawking defense that at its best contested every pass and nearly every dribble. Radford led the Big South and ranked 14th nationally in steals per game (12.2) with Erwin Spencer, McElroy and Kay Vick leading the theft parade. Radford forced 20 or more turnovers 16 times, and 30 or more on four occasions.

The ability to turn defense into offense was key, because the Highlanders often struggled to turn offense into offense. Radford ranked 303rd out of 333 teams in assists per game (10.3) and shot just 36.8 percent from the field. Furthermore, in an age when the 3-point shot has become increasingly important, the Highlanders had just one player (Kaylyn Crosier) who connected on at least 35 percent from distance. As a team, Radford shot a paltry 28 percent from beyond the arc.

Becoming more efficient on offense - perhaps by sharing the ball better - should pay big dividends for the Highlanders. They'll also need to replace, and hopefully exceed, McElroy's team-leading 7.3 boards a game. No other Highlander averaged as many as five boards per game.

So let's see. The Highlanders were below average in passing, shooting and rebounding, yet still won nearly half their games and contended in the Big South. No wonder Ngongba was the league's coach of the year.
Clearly there's still plenty of work to do if Radford wants to make noise outside of its conference. But for most teams, digging in on defense and totally committing to the game plan are the hard parts. These Highlanders appear to have that stuff down cold.

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