Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hampton seizes resume-boosting win over LSU

Hampton's Alyssa Bennett

From the day David Six took over as Hampton's coach four years ago, he maintained that his goal was to develop a nationally relevant squad, a team good enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid whether it won the MEAC or not.

This might be that team.

The final score in Hampton's 67-58 victory over LSU Friday before a spirited crowd - and jammin' band - at the HU Convocation Center barely hints at the Lady Pirates' dominance. This was a 15-20 point spread most of the night, as the quicker, more finely-honed Lady Pirates imposed their defensive will on the Lady Tigers.

"They disrupted us in our guard play and set the tone on the boards," LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. "Their kids came to play, and I don't think we were ready to match their intensity. I give a lot credit to Hampton."

The NCAA Tournament Committee may have no choice but to do the same. A year ago, Hampton was miffed at receiving a No. 16 seed in the Big Dance. The Lady Pirates wanted more respect; this year, they're compiling the kind of resume that will demand it. Hampton's 3-0 record includes two road victories, one by 37 points, the other at SEC member Mississippi State, and Friday night's home triumph over a program that was No. 25 in the RPI last year and played in the SEC championship game.

To be fair, the Lady Tigers had just nine players available Friday night and are in a state of transition after losing five seniors off last season's 23-11 team.

Then again, Hampton is undergoing even more retooling. The Lady Pirates' three most accomplished players from a year ago all graduated, and every player Hampton put on the floor Friday was either a returner asked to play an expanded role, or a newcomer performing in the Convocation Center for the first time.

But based on Friday's performance, this team has the potential to not just match the achievements of its three straight MEAC championship predecessors, but actually be the best of the group. Had someone taken the names off the jerseys, it would have been easy to mistake Hampton for the SEC power and LSU the MEAC upstart. At times it appeared as though the Lady Pirates had six defenders attacking LSU's five. The Lady Tigers finished the first half with nearly as many turnovers (15) as points (18).

When Hampton had the ball, the Lady Tigers deployed themselves in a zone and invited the Lady Pirates (2 of 15 from 3-point range through their first two games) to take their chances from the outside. The tactic paid off initially, as Hampton was 0 for 6 from 3-point range before the first media timeout.

But on her first shot as a Lady Pirate, ex-Old Dominion standout Jo Guilford buried 3-pointer No. 7. The shot triggered a 19-0 Hampton blitz that vaulted the Lady Pirates in front 21-6 with 11:02 left in the first half. The game was effectively decided there.

Keiara Avant
Keiara Avant, who didn't crack Hampton's starting lineup until late last season, continued her remarkable run of games with 19 points and 10 rebounds. The 5-11 Avant now has double-doubles in each of Hampton's three games this season and eight of her last 12 dating back to 2011-12. A year ago, Avant averaged 7.7 points and 7.9 rebounds. This year she's averaging 21.3 points and 13.0 boards.

Alyssa Bennett added 16 points and 10 rebounds, point guard Nicole Hamilton dished out a career-high 10 assists and guard Olivia Allen added eight points off the bench as the Lady Pirates improved to 3-2 against SEC schools under Six.

Given this success, we were initially a bit surprised when LSU's Caldwell agreed to bring her team to the Peninsula. Sure, her Lady Tigers will be at Georgetown Monday so it made sense for her to want another game reasonably close to the D.C. area. But given Hampton's success in recent years, a lot of coaches in Caldwell's position likely would see little to gain from taking on such a dangerous foe on the road.

After the game, though, Caldwell said the danger Hampton posed was precisely why she signed on.

"Hampton's established itself," she said. "These are the type of road games we need to play if we want to be ready for SEC play."

Think about that for a minute. Caldwell believes playing at Hampton will help her team prepare to play teams like Tennessee and Kentucky. That might be the highest compliment anyone's ever paid the HU program.

Meanwhile, Six did his part to make sure his Lady Pirates seized the moment.

"I told them in the locker room, you may get to play LSU again, but you won't be here," he said. "And you want people to support the program? Then go out and give 'em something to cheer about. Put on the kind of show they'll want to come back and see."

Mission accomplished.

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