Thursday, January 2, 2014

Cole, Ward come up big for Hampton

Kenia Cole
We settled in for Wednesday's Virginia Tech-Hampton showdown expecting the Lady Pirates' Big Three - Alyssa Bennett, Nicole Hamilton and Malia Tate-DeFreitas - to do most of Hampton's business because, well, those are the ones putting up all the numbers, right?

A couple of hours later, we're here to report that, as George and Ira Gershwin famously put it, it ain't necessarily so....

The Lady Pirates topped the Hokies 70-60 on New Year's Day at the Hampton Convocation Center, but that score might have been reversed were it not for a career-high 30 points from junior guard Kenia Cole and a school-record 23 rebounds from redshirt sophomore forward Brielle Ward.

Now, we've been expecting big things out of Cole ever since we noticed her nice handle and good-looking shot in the preseason leading into her freshman year. Plus she came with that Paint Branch pedigree (ex-JMU star Tarik Hislop and Maryland's Brene Moseley are also guard products of the Maryland high school).

Obviously Cole was going to sit behind All-American point guard Jericka Jenkins her first year. But Hamilton seized the point guard slot last season, and the freshman Tate-DeFreitas blew up right out of the gate this season. All the while, Cole has struggled to find a consistent niche.

That is, until last week's Georgia Tech tournament. Cole dropped a career-high 19 points on Brown, and followed that up with an 11-point effort against the host Yellow Jackets.  Then she combined those numbers in one tour-de-force performance against the Hokies, continually burning them with an assortment of drives, 3-pointers and free throws (12 of 14).

This from a player who came in averaging 4.9 ppg.

Naturally, we went looking for some great reason why the light coming on for Cole. But while she did allow that she's more decisive and less hesitant with the ball, she basically shot down every other theory we offered up for the dramatic uptick in numbers. No, she isn't suddenly feeling better about her shot - in fact, she says she missed everything during shootaround before her breakout game against Brown. No, it wasn't the New Year's resolution to give up soda - that just started Tuesday. And no, there was no come-to-Jesus meeting with coach David Six.

We felt like Spike Lee/Mars Blackmon in those old Air Jordan commercials:

"Money, it's gotta be the shoes!"

"No, Mars."

Whatever the case, if Cole can continue bringing it the way she has recently, the potent Bennett-Hamilton-Tate-DeFreitas triumvirate can get away with so-so offensive nights (by their own standards) like the ones they turned in against Tech. We doubt neutralizing Cole was that high on Virginia Tech's defensive priority list heading into Wednesday's game, and understandably so.

Expect opponents to move that up a few notches going forward.

As for Ward, we knew the rangy 6-2 forward was a solid rebounder (7.6 rpg going in).

But 23 of 'em?

Brielle Ward
It actually seemed like more, as the springy, remarkably active Ward got her hands on several others and generally seemed to be involved in the play every time a shot went up. At times she'd be 15 feet away from the rim when the shot when up yet somehow wind up under the rim holding the ball over her head, as though she'd just performed some magic trick. We couldn't take our eyes off her.

Unfortunately for the Hokies, too often, they did.

Then there's "the look."  While Ward wears her hair in one long braid, during the run of play several strands escape confinement and settle around her face. Now, we don't mean to embarrass her because she's obviously an attractive young woman in virtually every other circumstance. But when a shot goes up, the combination of her wild hair and the way her eyes expand as she locks in on a potential board give her the look of a woman possessed.

Then again, if you need a rebound, that's actually a pretty attractive look, too.

Anyway, while watching her play we could think of only one name - Dennis Rodman.

After the game, Six said the eccentric NBA Hall of Famer is exactly the on-court prototype for Ward, who had a monstrous impact on the contest despite scoring just four points.

We've told her before, you're not an offensive juggernaut, but you can be Dennis Rodman," Six said. "Let's get those rebounds."

To her credit, Ward has embraced her role and treats a rebound the way Miley Cyrus treats attention - she's do anything to get it.

"Once you grasp what you do well and go hard at it, you get outcomes like 23 rebounds," she said. "That's the way I benefit the team because I know I don't score much. I'm a rebounder. That's what I do. So I try to get every single one."

Damn near did, too. As for the secret to continually being the one winding up with the ball:

"Honestly, I just try to outwork everybody around me," she said. "Most of the time when people try to box me out, once the shot goes up, they stop moving. I keep moving. I see the shot go up, I figure out where it might come off and I go to that spot. And sometimes people think that just because they're in front of me that they're going to automatically get it. Once I see that shot go up and they're in front of me, I spin right around them. You got to keep moving. It's always a footrace in the paint. Once you win the footrace, you win the battle."

Like Cole and her 30 points, Ward isn't going to put up a 23-spot on the boards routinely. But for most of this season, Bennett, Tate-DeFreitas and Hamilton have been so statistically dominant that we were reminded of the following line from ex-Brazilian basketball great Oscar Schmidt: "Some people, they play the piano. And some people, they move the piano."

On Wednesday against the Hokies, Ward and Cole took their turns behind the keyboards and banged out their notes as sweet as Billy Joel.

For more on the game, read:

The Hampton report

The Virginia Tech report

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