Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Providence big bound for James Madison

We can see the smile on Kenny Brooks' face already.

Rising junior Lauren Okafor, a 6-3 forward from Providence College, is transferring to James Madison, according to a story from Wednesday's New Haven Register.

Okafor reportedly made the decision after Friars coach Phil Seymore stepped down at the end of the season. Ranked the 23rd best power forward in the nation by ESPN HoopGurlz in 2010, Okafor played in 28 games for the Friars as a sophomore with 24 starts. She averaged 4.4 points and 5.4 rebounds, blocking 35 shots, a single season career mark at Providence. As a freshman, Okafor started 27 of 29 games, recording 26 blocks along with 3.7 ppg and 4.9 rpg. She was named to the Big East All-Freshman team.

At New Haven's Hopkins Prep, the third oldest independent school in the nation dating back to 1660, Okafor averaged 18.1 ppg, 18 rpg and 2.5 bpg.

Okafor, who will have to sit out the 2012-13 season due to NCAA transfer rules, will have two years of eligibility at JMU.

We bet Brooks can hardly wait.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Could Conference USA return ODU women's basketball to glory days?

Old Dominion is taking a leap of faith, finances and football - not necessarily in that order - with its move to Conference USA, and obviously, the fortunes of the women's basketball team weren't part of the calculus.

But that's OK. Because if this move pays off - and we mean really pays off - this could turn out to be the best thing that's happened to the Lady Monarchs since Ticha Penicheiro.

Remember when Old Dominion was part of the women's basketball elite? Those days weren't coming back as long as the Lady Monarchs operated out of the CAA. Sure, ODU produced plenty of good, NCAA Tournament-caliber teams out of that league, and probably could have built itself back up to field more of the same in the years ahead. But a consistent Top-10, national-championship contender? Absent special circumstances, like the Penicheiro-led "Portuguese Connection" or Elena Delle Donne landing at Delaware, we argue that simply can't be done out of any mid-major league.

If the Lady Monarchs are ever going to get back to the big girls table of women's basketball, a big-time football program will have to lead the way. Old Dominion doesn't have one of those yet. But with the move to Conference USA, the process may be under way.

Changing leagues won't help women's hoops team initially. In fact, joining C-USA starts off as a step back, a relegation to another one-bid league where the prospects for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid figure to be even dimmer than those in the league they're leaving behind. Conference USA ranked 11th in terms of conference RPI last season, four spots behind the CAA. Only two of the 14 teams that will be in Conference USA by the time ODU gets there in 2013 (UTEP and Tulane) finished in the top 100 of the RPI last year, and neither of those teams is projected to be in the Lady Monarchs' seven-team C-USA division.

That division will reportedly include Florida International, East Carolina, Marshall, Southern Miss, Charlotte and UAB. No disrespect to these teams, particularly a UAB squad that won 19 games and scored a win over Hampton. But we believe the Lady Monarchs would have been a contender in a division with these teams even last year, when they won just 11 games.  If ODU isn't at least one of the favorites to win that division in 2013-14, the rebuilding process ain't moving nearly fast enough.

But being the best team in Conference USA shouldn't be what this move is all about - not for the women's basketball team, and hopefully, not for the football engine that is driving this whole process. It won't happen overnight, and given the uncertain nature of big-time college athletics these days, it may not happen at all. But Old Dominion has a realistic chance to grow that football team into something really special.

Look at how far ODU football come already. A 27-8 record in its three-year existence. A playoff berth - and a playoff victory - in its first year of CAA eligibility. Sellouts for every home game, and a waiting list of nearly 4,000 for season tickets. And advertisers and boosters seemingly handing over money by the fistful to be a part of it all.

Now, think of what this could look like when the program moves up a level. As just the third FBS program in the state, ODU football could become more of a regional draw. Now, that's no sure thing in a quirky market like Hampton Roads, which has proven to be extremely finicky when it comes to supporting local sports. So far, no sport has been able to galvanize this region. Could big-time college football be that sport? We're about to find out.

Some might chuckle at the designation of Conference USA as "big-time football." But the end game for ODU shouldn't be to have a team as good as Tulsa or Marshall. If this thing grows the way it could, how about one as good as Virginia or Virginia Tech? Both programs, particularly the Hokies, have built their strength in part by tapping into the fertile Hampton Roads recruiting turf. By moving to Conference USA, ODU has positioned itself to start getting keeping some of this talent home and, eventually, giving the two state powers some competition.

A huge challenge? Absolutely, although we're sure it's one a Type-A-plus-plus personality like Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder won't back down from. And given the way he's managed the remarkable first three years of ODU football, we're not betting against him.

Plus, there's precedence for a school going from zero to 60 through FBS in short order. UConn moved to the FBS level in 2002. By 2007, the Huskies were co-Big East champs. Three years later, they played Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Of course, playing in a major conference like the Big East certainly helped. But who's to say a successful ODU football program wouldn't at some point be attractive to the Big East, or whatever the East Coast major-college football alliance may be called in the days ahead? And were that to happen, ODU could find itself in partnership with schools such as UConn, Rutgers and Louisville.

Among other things, that's one heck of a women's basketball league. And from a league like that, anything is possible, including building your program into the very best in the country.

Of course, the Lady Monarchs don't need to worry about any of this now. The first order of business is to finish strong in their final year of the CAA, then prepare to raise hell in Conference USA in 2013-14. Who knows? Twenty years from now, that might still be their home.

Still, the rise of ODU football opens up a world of possibilities, including the dream that the Lady Monarchs might one day be what they used to be.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Liberty's Warley excited about her new job: center for the Phoenix Mercury

Her mother was speechless. And two days after making the roster of the Phoenix Mercury, Liberty graduate Avery Warley still found it hard to put together a sentence about what it all means.

"I think the most, the best word is, I'm just excited," a giddy Warley said. "I'm anxious. I'm just so, I'm speechless. The way it happened..."

Yep, that was pretty special. Warley is one of three free agents who survived final roster cuts last week. She will wear No. 23 for the Mercury, who open the season on Sunday at Minnesota at 12:30 p.m. The game will be televised by ABC.

This is a league where jobs are scarce, where first-round draft picks find themselves unemployed. Warley is grateful her agent found the opportunity in Phoenix and soon afterward, she was on a plane to training camp.

"My main goal was to show them everything that I had so I had no regrets," Warley said. "I had to show them everything my game had, so if I was to get cut, there was never, 'I should have done this. I could have done that.' I had to focus on what I could control. I couldn't control the decision. It turned out pretty good for me."

Agreed. In addition to the 6-3 center, only Aneika Henry (Atlanta) and Ziomara Morrison (San Antonio) made rosters as free agents. Warley felt good from the start, showing off the kind of rebounding prowess that distinguished her at Liberty, where her 1,282 career boards ranks first all time. In an exhibition against the Japanese national team on May 8, Warley scored eight with 13 boards.

"I definitely saw I could fit in with this team. I saw the chemistry I had with them," Warley said. "They play my type of basketball. Mostly I saw a lot of me in this team, and that gave me a lot of confidence."

Still, nothing was a given until Warley got the good word from team president and COO Amber Cox. That happened on Wednesday, one day before Warley turned 25.

As the team was preparing for media day, Cox welcomed her to the fold.

"I knew it was coming down to clutch," Warley said. "I just waited and was very patient, and when I came down for media day, she said congratulations to me."

Warley's first call was to her mother in Washington, D.C.

"She was so speechless," Warley said.  "I think she started crying. She had to sit down and process it. It was a good feeling all the way from Washington, D.C. to Arizona."

One of her new teammates is perhaps the most talented basketball player in the world: Diana Taurasi.

"She is an awesome person," Warley said. "I just talked to her and she was giving me words of wisdom, so I'm definitely in soaking in everything she tells me."

Mom has already circled July 1, when the Washington Mystics host the Mercury. Warley says everything that happened has been a highlight. She's learning to live the life of a professional basketball player, which is devoid of the distractions and responsibilities that come with being a collegiate athlete.

"It's nothing like being in college," said Warley, who is three classes shy of completing her master's in psychology. "It's not so structured. All you focus on is basketball, not homework or going to study hall. Now I can focus on basketball. This is what I do. It's my job."

No surprise, Warley remains humble about all of it.

"It is all God. I have no parts in it at all," she said. "I definitely worked really really hard when I got here. God always rewards hard work

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Liberty's Warley makes WNBA roster in Phoenix

Former Liberty star Avery Warley has defied considerable odds - and given herself an early birthday present - by making the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury as an undrafted free agent. Warley, a three-time first-team All-Big South performer and the conference's all-time leading rebounder, broke the news herself on her Facebook page:

"Officially a Phoenix Mercury...#blessed :)

Warley, who will turn 25 on Thursday, will make her WNBA debut in a nationally televised game against the defending WBNA champion Minnesota Lynx on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. (ABC). The Mercury are led by superstar guard Diana Taurasi.

The majority of players that are drafted fail to make WNBA rosters, which are capped at 11 players. But the 6-3 Warley used her tenacious rebounding skills to make a place for herself with the Mercury. She grabbed 13 boards and scored eight points in the Mercury's lone exhibition game last week. On Wednesday, she sweated out a day in which the Mercury cut five other players to get down to the roster limit.

Warley will become the third Liberty graduate to play in the WNBA. Katie (Feenstra) Mattera played in the league for five seasons from 2005-09, and Megan Frazee spent two years (2009 and 2010) with San Antonio.

VCU's move to the A-10 could pay off - in time

From joining arguably the top non-BCS basketball conference to adding a home-and-home series with city rival Richmond, there should be a lot for VCU's women's basketball fans to be excited about with the move to the Atlantic 10.


But it may take some time for the Rams to find their way in their new league. Of course, with the departure of head coach Beth Cunningham and the graduation of stars Courtney Hurt and Andrea Barbour, the 2012-13 season figured to be a transition year no matter what conference VCU resided in. In a lot of respects, VCU currently finds itself in a similar situation to the one Old Dominion faced last year, when heavy graduation losses and the resignation of Wendy Larry led to an 11-win rebuilding season.

Compounding VCU's challenge is the fact that the Atlantic 10 is a slightly more challenging circuit than the CAA the Rams used to call home. The leagues are actually quite comparable top-to-bottom; in fact, the CAA actually ranked a couple ticks higher (7) than the A-10 (9) in conference RPI in 2011-12.
But in terms of strength at the top, the Rams' new conference blows the CAA away. Over the last 10 years, the Atlantic 10 has received 16 at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament; the CAA just three. The A-10 has also sent three teams to the NCAAs in five of the last six years, while the CAA has received three tournament bids only once in its history (2007).

The loss of Temple, which reached the NCAA's eight straight years until missing out in 2011-12, will rob the A-10 of one of its powers, as the Owls will depart for the Big East in 2013. Then again, the CAA has realignment issues of its own. And even without Temple, the Atlantic 10 will still have plenty of NCAA contenders for VCU to try to topple.

The good news for the Rams is their chances of going to the NCAAs ought to be pretty good if they can finish second or third. The bad news is finishing second or third now figures to be tougher than ever. And remember, this is a VCU team that, despite the presence of Hurt and Barbour, came in sixth in the CAA in 2011-12.

So the first challenge for VCU is to land a coach who can not just match Cunningham's achievements - no easy trick - but ultimately exceed them. Because for VCU to become a force in its new league, the Rams will likely need to be at least as good, and probably better, than they've ever been.

Here's hoping that new coach also has some ideas about how to get more fans at the games, as the success of VCU's men's basketball team certainly hasn't transferred any support to the women's team. In fact, VCU's attendance is an argument for moving to the A-10, as Rams fans sure didn't turn out to see their supposed CAA rivals. VCU's average attendance for its nine CAA home games was 450, the second-lowest in the 12-team league, ahead of only Northeastern (166). Only 359 fans showed up to see the Rams play long-time rival Old Dominion, and just 441 were there when VCU hosted William and Mary.

Visits from Xavier and St. Bonaventure can't draw worse than that, can they?

As for road games, the travel required for A-10 play, while definitely more extensive, doesn't figure to be too daunting. The A-10 plays 16 conference games as opposed to the CAA's 18, so the Rams will now have one less road trip to make. They won't have to leave the city for one of their road games (Richmond), and trips to George Washington and St. Joseph's shouldn't be that taxing.

Given the amount of retooling the Rams are undergoing, virtually every Atlantic 10 game figures to be a challenge in 2012-13. But if VCU can land the right coach, energize its fanbase and build on Cunningham's successes, the move to the Atlantic 10 sets the Rams up to escape the uncertainties of the CAA and establish themselves as real players in a top-flight, basketball-focused conference.


Everything you didn't know about Duke's Elizabeth Williams

We thank Virginia Beach's own Elizabeth Williams, the top freshman in the country last season after a memorable year at Duke. EW took the time to chat with LadySwish during a brief window when she was back in town for a few days before heading back to Durham to spend the summer in chemistry class. Such is the life of a future doctor.

EW on going to college and being a doctor: It's pretty busy but it's not impossible. Duke has a program called CAPE. It stands for Collegiate Athlete Pre-Medical Experience. We meet every two weeks and a doctor will come in and talk to us. In the fall, we get to do clinic hours. We're the only undergrads who get to take histories and stuff because we get to shadow different doctors. Also there is a summer internship where you do the same thing. I'll probably do that next summer.

EW on balancing academics and basketball: Second semester was really good, which was surprising. My hardest class was Evolutionary Anthropology. There were only three tests and I didn't do all that well on the first one. But my grades are fine.

EW on her summer plans:  I took intro chemistry to refresh myself on chemistry because I hadn't taken it since junior year (of high school). The chemistry I'm taking in the summer is the prerequisite for Organic Chemistry. The second summer session I"m taking Organic Chemistry.

EW on why she wants to be a doc: I love it. The biology of it is so cool. I think being able to help people is great. One of my classes was called 20th Century Medicine. We were in groups and we got to analyze shows from different decades. Our group got to do "House." I've watched a few "House," so I kind of like it.  It's a bit extreme. His bedside manner is terrible.

EW on her stress fracture: It's a lot better. I think I can start running once I get back to school this week. It's the first time I haven't played in a really long time. I was playing USA Basketball the past few summers and this summer, especially, after USA Basketball, I came straight to school and started preseason stuff.

EW on her freshman moments: Our freshman class -- we actually have a name for ourselves. We call ourselves EJAK, for the first letters of each of our names: Elizabeth, Jenna, Amber and Ka'lia. When we're all together, we act like little kids. Before it was even Halloween we decided to get masks from, I guess, Walgreens. And we all walked around the dorms and masks and we'd knock on people's doors, the four of us and scare people. Mine was a Mike Myers mask. It was a plain white face. It was pretty terrifying. Jenna had the Jigsaw one from "Saw." Ka'lia had Frankenstein and Amber had a werewolf. We'd wear the masks all the time. I think we came into the locker room with our masks on.

EW on the hoop necklace around her neck: I wear this on game day. It's rare for me to not wear it on game day. I got it for Christmas when I was 11 or 12.

EW on what she's not a fan of : I'm not a tattoo fan. I don't have a Twitter, either. I have a hashtag: TwitterlessLiz.

EW on Duke: It's a really diverse campus. Even during orientation I met someone from France. I feel really comfortable there.

 Once the conference season, having different meetings with the coaches, they were willing just to let me play how I want to play. Having that backing behind me and knowing my teammates are supportive and want to see me in a leadership role in the future anyway, that was helpful.

EW on feeling it on the court: There was the triple-double (the Wake Forest game: 18 points, 16 rebounds, 12 blocks). And when we played at Virginia Tech (20 points in 25 minutes). I remember I was in a zone. I had scored a lot in the first half. I think I picked up two fouls with six minutes left in the first. But that game, I felt it.

EW on hating UNC: It's hard to explain. It's pretty easy to hate them. I went to the Duke-Carolina (men's) game because Amber's brother plays for Carolina. It was loud and hot in there. We were in the grad section. We were yelling a little bit. Once you get on campus, not only in athletics, Carolina is just like 'ooh.'

EW on her favorite PG/C combo: Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. I love Tim Duncan. He's so fundamental.  He's tough to defend. People always joke that the Spurs are old. They still had the best record and they still play as a team.

EW on movies: I watch "Mean Girls" over and over again. I've probably memorized that. That movie is so funny.

EW on what's she's good at (beyond basketball and school): I'm good at Guitar Hero. I'm on Expert. I played Temple Run for a little bit. My best is like 6 million.

EW on what she's not so good at: I don't communicate a lot. I'm pretty quiet. I'm not super outgoing. I'm not the most gregarious person. With basketball though, you have to be way more vocal, so you have to talk even if you don't feel like it. That's something I've been trying to improve on -- being a more vocal leader.

I don't know how to swim. That's something I'm not good at. I wasn't very good at track and field, either. I can't wait for all the Olympics. I love all those events. I can jump high, but I can't high jump.

EW on how she got into basketball: I was really bad. My family didn't know much about basketball. Nigerian soccer is a big deal, so even when I came here, I played soccer.  One of my dad's colleagues told him, 'Your daughter is pretty tall. She should play basketball.' We ended up finding a coach. When I first started I couldn't catch the ball. I was tall and really skinny. In AAU, the parents would call me Spider.

EW on balancing med school with a WNBA career: I know someone who's been in law school and played professionally -- the Penn State head coach Coquese Washington. She was in law school and played. Med school doesn't work that way. The way I'm starting to see it now is playing for a little bit and then going to school because they're two separate jobs.

EW on good dorm eats: I really liked the sweet potato pie in the Marketplace.

At home I only eat Nigerian food. Going to college, I ate more Mexican food than I had in my whole life.

EW on band: I loved band. I miss it actually. I was in concert band and played trombone. My brother is trying to play trombone and he plays piano.

I decided to do band in middle school, but I didn't know what I wanted to play. Our band instructor was showing us all the instruments and I looked at a trombone and thought, 'This one doesn't have any keys. It must be easy.'  That's the main reason I picked it. Surprisingly it had positions, so you had to memorize those, which is basically the same as memorizing finger charts.We had district band and I made first chair.

(Aside: Two china cabinets in the family's living room are overrun with trophies and medals -- including three golds from USA Basketball. She also point out a John Philip Sousa Band award from middle school.)

EW, who also speaks Yoruba, offers this phrase: Ba wo ni means hello (how are you?)

EW on a  quirky habit: I like Sudoku puzzles. They're fun.

EW on what she misses about Virginia Beach: I just had Tropical Smoothie today (her favorite is Kiwi Quencher). I really like that place. And they don't have 7-Elevens in Durham. I miss just being able to easily go see a friend.

EW on the future: It's definitely a blessing to be where I am. I love this team. I'm so excited for this year.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

VCU's Q might be in 2012 Olympics -- for Turkey

Q might be bound for the 2012 Olympics.

The former VCU star has obtained Turkish citizenship after playing this season for Hungarian league champion UNI SEAT Gyor, where she averaged 13 points and nine rebounds. Earlier this week, Quanitra Hollingsworth signed with Russian powerhouse UMMC for next season.

If the Turkish national team survives its qualification round in June -- which includes Japan and Puerto Rico -- Hollingsworth could represent Turkey in the Olympics in London. Nineteen players are in the pool for the Turkish team, which can accept only one naturalized player. Hollingsworth and Stanford's Kristen "Nevin" Nevlin are the two Americans in the pool. Nevlin, a center, acquired Turkish citizenship in 2008 and was the top scorer and rebounder for Eurobasket women the following year.

In the last EuroLeague season Hollingsworth, 24, ranked first in field-goal percentage (61.8 percent) and second in rebounds (10.1). The 6-5 center spent 2009 and 2010 with the Minnesota Lynx before being traded to the New York Liberty in 2011.

Training camp for the Turkish team begins next week, and the qualifying tournament will be held in Turkey.

"I am very excited to have a sure possibility to be an Olympian," Hollingsworth said via email. "I think to play on the very highest stage is a very big accomplishment. I am honored that Turkey trusts me enough to allow me the opportunity to represent their country."

Hollingsworth, born in Chesapeake, Va., is following the pattern set by Becky Hammon, who four years ago became a citizen of Russia and played for the Russian national team in the Olympics. She has not spoken to Hammon.

"I have spoken to many professional athletes who have been through exactly what I am going through," Hollingsworth said. "I also have so much support behind me from my teammates and my coaches. ... It is sad that I will not be representing the country that I was born and raised in. However, there are a lot bigger things  that should be concerning me. This opportunity is a blessing and I will look at it as just that."

An Olympic opportunity will delay Hollingsworth's return to the Liberty.

"Just like many other Olympians in the WNBA, I will miss some time with my team," she said. "However, I will be back in uniform immediately following the Olympic break."

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dawn Evans debuts with WNBA's Sun

Former JMU star Dawn Evans got an eventful first taste of WNBA action Monday night when her Connecticut Sun topped the New York Liberty 96-81 in the teams' preseason opener at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Evans, who is considered a longshot to make the roster, missed her only shot attempt but dished out five assists against just one turnover in a nearly 12-minute stint. She was also involved in a collision with WNBA veteran and ex-Virginia star DeMya Walker. Walker left the court on a stretcher and was taken to a nearby hospital to check for head and neck injuries. Said Evans via Twitter:

"I really hope (DeMya) Walker is OK. My head hit her lip for anyone who was wondering. #prayersup

Avery Warley
Early indications appear promising: according to the Hartford Courant, Walker was joking with Sun teammate Renee Montgomery via text shortly after the incident.

The Sun will play another preseason game on Thursday at home gainst the defending league champion Minnesota Lynx.

On Tuesday night, ex-Liberty standout Avery Warley is expected to make her WNBA preseason debut with the Phoenix Mercury against the Japanese National Team. A tenacious rebounder, Warley appears to be in the mix for a team that is thin in the post.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Whatever happened to ... Liberty's Jelena Antic?

Disney fan Jelena at home in Serbia.
We kick off our "Where are they now?" updates with former Liberty star Jelena Antic, who played two seasons for the Lady Flames, leaving in 2011 to play pro and to be closer to home in Macedonia.

My season with Partizan just ended. We ended up as the Regional League and Serbian League champions. It was a pretty good season overall. It took me some time to get adjusted to European ball, the pro life, etc., but I'm loving it. I was the youngest player on the team, so playing older, more experienced players was a big challenge. I'm in Belgrade for individual practices right now.

I miss a whole lot of things about Liberty, mostly the whole environment, the kind people, my friends, coaches and professors. They were all a part of my life I will never forget. I talk to my host mom all the time about how I wish I could just stop by on Thursdays for lunch at Ruby Tuesdays and eat Parmesan shrimp (that's our little tradition). I miss the campus and just walking around. I do keep in touch with pretty much all the players, but the fact that we live on different continents with different time zones makes it harder to figure out when we can Skype. But I'm glad I still have great friends from Liberty, and I'm planning on visiting next summer.

Is there a player from the past you'd like us to catch up with? Let LadySwish know and we'll try and find her. Email us at

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Courtney Hurt cut by Indiana Fever

This WNBA thing moves quickly, doesn't it?

On April 16, former VCU star Courtney Hurt celebrated being a third-round draft pick of the Indiana Fever. Sunday, she began training camp. On Wednesday, she was cut.

That Hurt, who led Division I in rebounding two years in a row, survived just a few days speaks to how difficult it is to make a team in a league where roster limits are capped at 11. Our main hope was that Hurt would at least make it to the Fever's first preseason game Saturday at San Antonio.

Old Dominion's Tia Lewis was also released Wednesday by the Washington Mystics, another victim of the WNBA training camp syndrome of too many players, too few roster spots. But as this writing, former JMU standout Dawn Evans is still fighting the good fight in her bid to stick with the Connecticut Sun.

JC star Wilka Montout signs with South Carolina

Junior College All-American Wilka Montout, a 6-5 center who visited Virginia in mid-April, has signed with South Carolina.

Montout, who averaged 18.6 points and 8.2 rebounds last season at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, obviously would have been a great get for the Cavaliers. But there should still be plenty of optimism surrounding a Virginia incoming class that includes two ESPN Top-100 recruits (guard Faith Randolph, No. 27, and guard Raeshaun Gaffney, No. 94), along with point guard Jaryn Garner. The Cavaliers will also have the services of Kentucky transfer Sarah Beth Barnette and 2011 Top-100 forward Sarah Imovbioh, who sat out last season but will have four years of eligibility beginning this season.