Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Down the stretch in the Atlantic 10

Dayton star Andrea Hoover
Atlantic 10
March 5-9, Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, Va.

The frontrunner: Dayton (21-5, 14-1), which moved up one spot to No. 21 in the latest WBCA/USA Today Top 25 poll, has clinched its second straight A-10 regular season title and will be the tournament's top seed. The Flyers have won nine straight and 19 of their last 20 games, and their 26-game home winning streak is tied for the second-longest in Division I (Chattanooga has won 37 straight home games and East Carolina will put its 26-game home streak on the line Wednesday against No. 23 Middle Tennessee State).

The challengers: The top four seeds will begin play in the quarterfinals, and with two games remaining, five teams - St. Bonaventure (21-8, 10-4), George Washington (19-8, 10-4), St. Joseph's (20-7, 9-5), Fordham (20-7, 9-5) and Duquesne (17-10, 9-5) are in serious play for the three remaining slots. VCU (21-7, 9-6) needs to win at Richmond on Wednesday - no easy task - and hope for a train wreck involving the teams ahead of them, while La Salle (12-14, 7-7) will most likely run out of schedule in its bid for a top-four slot. 
   In terms of NCAA at-large potential, both Dayton (11) and St. Joseph's (17) have Top-20 RPIs. No team with an RPI in this range has ever been left out of the NCAAs. Then there's George Washington (18-8, RPI 97). The raw numbers certainly aren't special, but the Colonials are 12-4 with a win over St. Joseph's since transfer forward Jonquel Jones became eligible, with games remaining against St. Bonaventure and Dayton. If GW can win out, pick off a couple more teams in the tournament and then be evaluated on its body of work with Jones, the Colonials may have a case. Obviously the Colonials have a ton of work to do before this is even an issue. But if they do get on a roll, the conference and the team need to make sure the selection committee has this scenario in mind. (P.S. - If GW loses to St. Bonaventure Wednesday, never mind).

The rest of the field: Both Richmond (12-15, 6-8) and Saint Louis (11-17, 6-9) have proven they can compete with the top teams and figure to be tough outs in their first-round matchups. Meanwhile, Rhode Island (7-21, 2-13), George Mason (7-20, 1-13) and UMass (4-24, 1-13) are scrambling to avoid the lone play-in game pitting the No. 12 seed against No. 13.

VCU's prospects: Getting one win in this league is tough enough. Stringing together four in a four-day span - - VCU's likely task at the A-10 tourney - will be an incredible challenge. But consider this: Suppose the Rams win once or twice? And suppose the raucous VCU fans, the ones who have helped the Rams men's team sell out 48 straight games while turning the Siegel Center into one of the most intimidating venues in college basketball, get turned on by the thought of energizing the women's team and show up en masse at the nearby Coliseum? And suppose VCU's next opponent winds up having to deal with not just the Rams, but thousands of Rowdy Rams fans, too.?Who knows if this will happen? But opposing teams had better knock VCU off early, just in case.

Richmond's prospects: The Spiders will enjoy hometown advantage, too, and while "intimate gatherings" is a polite way of describing the team's typical turnout, everyone loves a winner, especially when you don't have to leave town to show support. A season-long cavalcade of injuries sabotaged what might have been a NCAA-caliber season, and the Spiders now need to win their last two and go deep in the tourney just to have a shot at the WNIT. We love how this team has continued to battle, though, so there's no way we're counting them out. 

George Mason's prospects: Even if the Patriots tie Rhode Island for 11th place, the Rams won the head-to-head meeting, so it appears to us the most likely scenario is for the Patriots to wind up in the 12 vs. 13 play-in game. But that may not be the worst thing as it creates a chance for the Patriots to open with a win and establish some tournament momentum. Mason destroyed likely first-round opponent UMass a couple weeks ago for its only conference win.

All-Atlantic 10

A list (which may or may not be in the order we believe they rank) of the players we think are vying for first-team All-Atlantic 10 spots. Note: We focus primarily on conference-only performances as we believe it provides more of an apples-to-apples comparison of the athletes:

Robyn Parks, VCU
Andrea Hoover, Dayton
Erin Rooney, Fordham
Wumi Agunbiade, Duquesne
Jonquel Jones, George Washington
Katie Healy, St. Bonaventure
Ally Malott, Dayton
Erin Shields, St. Joe's
Natasha Cloud, St. Joe's
Amber Deane, Dayton
Alicia Cropper, La Salle

Player of the Year

Obviously we're partial to Parks since we've been focused on her exploits and know how much she means to the Rams. Hoover is an excellent candidate as well, though, and Rooney, Agunbiade and Jones still have two games to burnish their credentials.

All-Freshman team

Another list (which may or may not be in the order we believe they rank) of the players we think are vying for the All-Freshman team10 (based primarily on conference-only performances):

Caira Washington, George Washington
Keira Robinson, VCU
Liv Healy, Richmond
Erin Nelson, Saint Louis
Janelle Hubbard, Richmond
Sadie Stipanovich, Saint Louis
Hannah Schaible, George Washington
Isis Thorpe, VCU
Micahya Owens, La Salle
Celeste Edwards, Dayton

Freshman of the Year

We absolutely love the Richmond and VCU newcomers, but GW's Caira Washington is going to be tough to beat.

Coach of the Year

Dominance is sometimes taken for granted. But it's not easy to go 15-1 in a league as tough as the A-10. If Dayton can pull that off, our vote would go to Jim Jabir. Of course, a lot of folks like to reward the coach who does a lot better than expected. VCU's Marlene Stollings and St. Bonaventure's Jim Crowley both coaxed transformational seasons out of youth-laden rosters. So if this better fits your criteria for coach of the year, take your pick.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Down the stretch in Conference USA

The first in our series of look-aheads to the conference tournaments.

Conference USA
March 11-15, El Paso, Texas

     The frontrunner: Middle Tennessee (12-1), which is ranked No. 23 in the latest AP Top 25 poll, has a two-game lead over three teams with three to play.
     The challengers: Southern Miss, UTEP and Tulane are all bunched in second place with 10-3 conference marks, and East Carolina sits a game back at 9-4. The difference between fourth and fifth place is huge as the top four seeds earn double-byes and will be three tournament victories away from the title. Seeds five through eight will face a four-games-in-four-days path to the crown.

Wednesday's key games

     Middle Tennessee State at East Carolina: The Lady Pirates have won 26 straight home games but will be hosting a Top-25 team for the first time in that span.

     UTSA at UTEP: The status of UTEP star Kayla Thornton is unclear after she collapsed in the locker room Saturday after leading her team past East Carolina. Thornton apparently has a concussion and as of Monday had not been cleared to return to action.

     UAB at Southern Miss: UAB has won three in a row and is coming off an upset win over Tulane; high-scoring Southern Miss is the league's hottest team with eight straight victories.

     The rest of the field: Seeds five through eight earn single byes, and while UAB's Blazers (7-5) look to be OK if they handle their business it gets awfully congested from there. Two teams from a group that includes Charlotte (6-6), Old Dominion (6-7), FIU (6-7), Rice (5-8), Tulsa (5-8) and North Texas (5-8) will earn the right to bypass first-round play. UTSA (4-9), Florida Atlantic (3-10) and Louisiana Tech (3-10) will all likely finish outside the top eight, and Marshall (2-11) will definitely be playing on opening day.

     Old Dominion's prospects: After two straight road victories, the Lady Monarchs can now either play their way into or out of a first-round bye. We absolutely love ODU's chances on Wednesday at home against Louisiana Tech. The Lady Techsters are 1-11 on the road - although the win came last Wednesday in overtime at Tulsa - and are also the third-worst shooting team in the conference. Old Dominion is coming off holding Rice to 31.4 percent shooting and UTSA to 29.6. If the Lady Monarchs can apply that level of defense to LA Tech, this puppy might be over quickly. That said, the last time we felt this strongly about ODU getting a win was about a month ago against Marshall, and the Lady Monarchs needed some unlikely late heroics and overtime to rescue victory. So let's just see how things play out.
     Old Dominion travels to FIU on Saturday and concludes regular-season play on March 5 at home vs. East Carolina. If the Lady Monarchs can win their remaining games, they will not only hit the postseason on a roll but should also find themselves in fairly decent shape for a WNIT bid - especially if they can advance a round or two in the CUSA tourney. But any regular season loss at this point muddies their WNIT outlook considerably.


The league will have first- and second-teams consisting of eight players each as selected by the coaches, SIDs and selected media representatives. Now remember, there are still three games remaining - four for Charlotte and UAB - so some shifting of spots could occur. But as of right now here's how we see it:

First team 

Ebony Rowe, MTSU
Jerica Coley, FIU
Karisma Chapman, UAB
Kayla Thornton, UTEP
Jessica Kuster, Rice
Jamierra Faulkner, Southern Miss
Shae Kelley, Old Dominion
Jada Payne, East Carolina

Second team

Gabby Tyler, Charlotte
Chrishauna Parker, UTEP
Whitney Frazier, LA Tech
Tiffany Dale, Tulane
Abria Trice, East Carolina
Ny Hammonds, Charlotte
Kimberly Smith, Florida Atlantic
Kelsee Grovey, Tulsa

Player of the Year

Coley and Rowe are both enjoying All-American-type seasons and are thus ridiculously well-qualified for this honor. We like Rowe at this point, but we'll re-open our mental debate if Coley can lift her team to a Top-8 finish.

All-Freshman team

We're not quite ready to trim this list to five yet, so here are eight newcomers we'd strongly consider:

Olivia Jones, Middle Tennessee State
Lefty Webster, Charlotte
Tesha Smith, UTSA
Leslie Vorpahl, Tulsa
Brittany Dinkins, Southern Miss
Kierra Jordan, Southern Miss
JaQuan Jackson, Louisiana Tech
Chelsie Romero, Marshall

Note: Old Dominion's Odegua Oigbokie and Destinee Young both have displayed All-Freshman team skills, but at 14.2 and 8.3 minutes per game respectively, they haven't logged enough time.

Freshman of the Year

Oliva Jones, Middle Tennessee State

Coach of the Year 

Rick Insell, Middle Tennessee State

Friday, February 21, 2014

Richmond's Becca Wann and her amazing perspective

I remember the kid sitting on the bench at Granby High School. The game was over. Her team had lost. She was crying softly. When I sat down beside her wondering if she was composed enough to talk, she offered this, "I'll never do this again, play high school basketball. This was my final game."

The final game. Most athletes don't think about that moment until it hits and even then, it's not always clear in that moment. There's often another level to aspire to; maybe you get there, maybe you don't. Putting down the ball, the mitt, the racket one last time doesn't seem real in the moment. There's always another game or at least probably another game, right?

Richmond's Becca Wann has put down the basketball and put away the soccer ball. She was set to be drafted in soccer, but that is no more. She might kick the ball around on her own or at a youth camp, but no more head games. One concussion too many brought her stellar career to an abrupt halt.

Wann was in Newport News two weeks ago as a speaker at the Atlantic 10's Student Athletic Advisory Committee's weekend conference. She reflected eloquently and poignantly about what she calls "the hardest six months of my life."

Her ambitious athletic career as a Division I athlete in two sports, soccer and basketball, ended Aug. 23 when she sustained a concussion after a header in a game against Old Dominion. Her aerial game was her trademark.

"I play soccer 25 percent with my feet and 75 percent with my head," she says.

She didn't admit to anyone for days that she suspected concussion, telling herself, "If I wake up tomorrow with a headache. . ." When the migraine didn't leave, she confessed the symptoms to her trainer. In consultation with a neurologist, both agreed she was done on the athletic field. That didn't just bring her brilliant soccer career to a close -- Wann won a gold medal playing with the Women's National Team at the 2012 FIFA U20 World Cup in Japan and was the first Spider to be named A-10 Rookie of the Year and A-10 Offensive Player of the Year -- her basketball career was over, too.

The chances of suffering another concussion were too great. She doesn't know how many she's had, but risking another wasn't worth the cost. In a room full of athletes at the SAAC event, she talked about hearing the story of a player who could do nothing but stay in a dark room for three months due to a concussion.

That can't be me, she realized. She can't risk looking across the table as a  young woman and needing to be reminded who is on the other side.

Wann played her final game, and sports -- something she cherished and sacrificed for since her little girl days -- was gone as she knew it.

She is still a Spider. She goes to basketball practice every day and remains an active a part of the team as possible, whether that means handing out water bottles or exchanging high fives. Indeed, she cringes when she hears an athlete griping about going to practice. Wann works out on the treadmill these days, something she's learning to tolerate, but sure, she'd rather have the coach yelling at her on the court.  Yet she is able to dig within herself to find this crux:

“In the end, my identity is in who I am, not what I do,” Wann said. “Who you are is more important that what you do.”

That's a message we can all learn from. Too often we are identified by our occupations; too often student-athletes are lost when they become just students, not athletes. When it is all you know, what happens when it's over? The door may be shut, Wann says, but a window is open. 

"I don't question God with the good stuff; I didn't question him when I won a gold medal," she said. "How can I question him in the hard times?

"If I could do it all over again, I would just do it all over again," she said. "I wouldn't change anything. Well, there's a goal I would have scored in Japan. . . . But I would start those 15 years over starting with the girl in a ribbon in her hair (yes, she grimaced) in a second."

Unwavering faith, family, teammates and friends continue to strengthen her. She doesn't know where she's going -- grad school or coaching are in her mind -- but this much she understands. It's the end of her athletic career. It's the beginning of something else. What that is she doesn't know -- yet. But we have an idea it will be something great.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

VCU, ODU, Richmond go 3 for 3

Three games, three rousing victories. In other words, Wednesday was our kind of night.

Cue the highlights:

VCU 74, St. Bonaventure 57: One of the benefits of "Fury" is no matter how much the Rams struggle early, there's always the potential for an avalanche of stops and scores. St. Bonaventure found itself buried under such an avalanche Wednesday as the Rams shook off an opening 5-of-29 shooting effort and a two-touchdown halftime deficit to open up a can on the Bonnies after the break. Freshman Isis Thorpe scored 16 of her 19 points and hit four of her five 3-pointers during the second-half onslaught, but disruptive Rams' defense was probably the biggest key in flipping this game's script. The Bonnies, who came in averaging 15.6 turnovers per game, coughed it up 15 times in the second half alone.
   What it means: In addition to clinching a 20-win season - the sixth in program history - and enhancing Marlene Stollings' Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year candidacy, the Rams (20-7, 8-6) now have victories over three of the projected top six seeds in the Atlantic 10 Tournament and a four-point loss at projected No. 1 Dayton. Translation: A lot of the contenders in this league will be hoping VCU is on the other half of their bracket.

Old Dominion 85, Rice 49: What VCU did to St. Bonaventure in the second half ODU did to Rice pretty much the entire game as the Lady Monarchs dominated with suffocating defense and relentless energy. Caught the first 10 or so minutes of this one on radio and it sounded as though Lady Monarchs forward Chelisa Painter, in particular, was everywhere, getting her hand on passes, ripping down rebounds and finishing at the rim. The Lady Monarchs also shot 18 of 23 from the free-throw line, an excellent performance from a team that came in ranked 340th out of 343 Division I teams in FT percentage. To be fair, Rice (11-14, 4-8) isn't exactly UConn - the Owls have one very good player - center Jessica Kuster - and a bunch of surrounding parts still trying to figure things out. But the Lady Monarchs put on the same type of dominating performance for a half on Saturday against Conference USA contender UTEP. So maybe, just maybe, this is the type of team they've finally become. Let's hope so.
   What it means: The Lady Monarchs (12-14, 5-7) moved into a three-way tie for eighth place, a significant slot since the top eight teams receive first-round byes in the conference tournament (the top four get double-byes). They'll have another opportunity to flex their newfound muscle on Saturday at UTSA (12-12, 3-8).

Richmond 89, UMass 76: The Spiders haven't exactly been an offensive juggernaut this season, but they hung a season-high total on hapless UMass as Lauren Tolson, Kristina King, Janelle Hubbard, Amber Nichols and Genevieve Okoro all scored in double figures. The outcome was hardly a surprise, as the Minutewomen (3-24, 0-13) have now lost 17 straight games and haven't won at home since Nov. 20 (remarkably, against Rutgers). But even though the Spiders pretty much did what they were supposed to do, it was still nice to see them go out and do it.
   What it means: Richmond (12-14, 6-7) has three games left and it takes at least a .500 record to be WNIT-eligible. If the Spiders go 3-0, they're all set no matter what happens in the A-10 Tournament. If they go 2-1, they'll need at least two tournament wins. And if they go 1-2 or 0-3, the WNIT is off the table. They'd either have to win the A-10 tourney and go to the NCAAs, or go home for good after any loss.

Finally, a special shoutout to Richmond freshman Liv Healy, who was scheduled to have knee surgery Thursday morning. We look forward to all going well and seeing this special player back on the court as soon as possible.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Meet the woman who's going to make Dawn Evans healthy again

Dawn and Erika

Erika Evans laughs when asked the question.

Did you ever think you'd be donating a kidney to someone?

"It wasn't exactly on my bucket list," she says.

Evans' recipient is another Evans -- that would be James Madison's Dawn Evans, her first cousin. Dawn, suffering from focal segmental glomerular sclerosis since December 2009, will receive the new kidney in Nashville in the next two to three weeks. Evans learned her kidney condition had deteriorated when she returned home to Clarksville, Tenn., over Christmas from Arras, France, where she had been playing basketball.

Erika, 28, of Landover, Md., was initially tested as were several family members in late 2012. The process works this way. Each person has six basic typing antigens or markers. A marker helps determine which donor is the best match with ideal matches being 6 of 6. However, all six antigens don't need to match for a successful transplant; even one antigen may make for a successful transplant, especially if the donor is alive. However in most cases, the final test, ensuring the donor and recipient  do not have a positive cross match, meaning antibodies would reject the organ, must also be compatible for a transplant to take place.

Erika and Dawn matched on four of six markers --  no positive cross match.

The cousins didn't know each other well.

"She grew up in Tennessee and I'm here in Maryland," Erika said. "We went to visit maybe four or five times that I can maybe remember."

Erika and family did attend a handful of Dawn's JMU games -- when the Dukes were at Georgetown and in the CAA Tournament championship in nearby Upper Marlboro, Md.

But Edward Evans, Erika's dad, and Rodney Evans, Dawn's dad, are brothers who talk nearly every day. When Edward mentioned Dawn's illness to his daughter, her first response was, "How do I get tested?"

Erika endured a battery of tests at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "I had blood work, x-rays, you see a psychiatrist -- just tests checking your overall health," Erika said.

A week after she got back home, Erika learned the results. She was happy, but realized she had a decision to make considering her own family. Erika is mom to two small children, Khyree, 3,  and Kennedi, 6.

When Erika called Dawn to say she would go through with the donation, she admits, "It was weird, at first. There was just this silence. But that changed quickly. Now we talk just about every day."

Since those initial tests, Erika has had to drop weight to improve her BMI: "I have finally started enjoying the gym," she says, noting having a purpose beyond losing the weight for yourself is a powerful motivator.

Erika completed the final test -- a 24-hour blood pressure monitor -- on Sunday night. She returned the monitor on Monday to the hospital and is awaiting the exact transplant date. "They said about two weeks from when they get the monitor," she said.

Erika has never had major surgery. She's been told the actual procedure will last three to four hours, and the recovery time will be four weeks. Other than monitoring her alcohol intake, no problem for Erika, she will not be placed on any restrictions afterward. "Just stay healthy," she said.

The magnitude of her gift hasn't hit her yet.

"I don't think about it as big as it really is," Erika says. "I just figure I can help somebody. I know it's big. I don't think it's hit me yet. Maybe when it's time to put on surgery clothes and go under the anesthesia, it will hit me then."

A friend has started a fundraiser for Erika, an office manager at a private dental practice in Maryland. She is hoping to raise $4,500, money that will help with expenses for the six weeks she is off without pay.

Dawn is also promising something special, as she plans to return to her team in France when she's healthy again.

"When she goes back to play, she's going to try and get my family and me to come see her first game," Erika says. "Hopefully we can make that happen."

We have a feeling Dawn will make it so.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Don't be too discouraged by the very long year that is George Mason basketball

There's a Frank Sinatra song when the crooner sings about it being "a very good year."

We promise George Mason fans, your very good year is coming.

It hasn't been a very good year in terms of wins and losses for the Patriots (7-19), who have won just once in 2014 under first-year coach Nylan Milleson. A defeat of Atlantic 10 bottom feeder UMass on Feb. 12 gave the Patriots their first victory in their new conference.

"I absolutely cannot fault our kids' efforts and their attitudes day in and day out," Milleson said. "Fortunately I have not had to endure many of these type of seasons. But you would not walk into our gym, walk into our shoot-arounds, watch us warm up and know we've only won seven games. They continue to work hard; they continue to bring energy. We continue to teach, and they continue to learn. We're laying the groundwork, and we knew it was going to be a process."

What's hurt:

* "If we could have won a couple of more games in our nonconference," Milleson says. ".We won some, but there were some where we had leads and were up late. Confidence is such a funny thing when you're struggling. We don't have enough confidence." The Patriots suffered overtime losses to Maryland-Eastern Shore and Delaware State in nonconference -- they also fell to Richmond in OT -- and were beaten by UAB by three.

* "Two things that have haunted all year: points off turnovers and rebounding. "When you don't shoot it well, you're not able to create a lot of easy buckets for yourself," Milleson says. George Mason ranks 294 (among 343 D-I schools in turnover margin and 310 in scoring defense. The Patriots are last in the A-10 in rebounding defense and 11th in rebounding margin).

* Lack of depth. "There have been many, many games we have run out of gas. We don't have enough pieces," notes Milleson.

* The miles. The Patriots spent 38 days on the road in December and traveled 5,000 miles.

The bright spots:

*  Redshirt sophomore Taylor Brown (18.1 ppg, 114 assists, both team bests) and junior forward Sandra Ngoie (12.7 ppg). Neither played a minute last year.
* Jasmine Jackson (5-9 junior guard from Georgetown) and Kristi Mokube (6-2 junior forward form Florida State) are in the wings "chomping at the bit," Milleson says. They will be eligible for the 2014-15 season.
* "We've been beating the path trying to find better players. On that note, the Patriots signed four early: Cyndi Cole, a 5-5 guard from Indian Creek High in Crownsville, Md.; Casey Davis, a 6-2 forward from Seton High in Bladensburg, Md.; Taylor Dodson, a 6-0 guard from Spotswood High in Penn Laird, Va.; and Qierra Murray, a 5-8 combo guard from Milford Mill Academy in Baltimore. Murray, Davis and Cole all played for the Maryland AAU Pride program.
* The coming offseason with Milleson and her staff intact to be there from start to finish. "The development has to take place there. We were here for a little bit of it last year, but we not enough to have made a difference."
* Milleson. She is three wins shy of 300 in her 14 seasons as a head coach. Milleson laid the foundation at Drury, where she led the scratch-built team to five Division II NCAA Tournament appearances in seven years. At Missouri State, it took Milleson two years to record back-to-back 20-win seasons and lift the Bears atop the Missouri Valley Conference. Building a program takes time, but Milleson promises, "We're going to get there."

A side note:

George Mason has not  had a winning season since 2003-04, when the Patriots nearly upset Old Dominion in the semifinals of the CAA Tournament (a game that stuck with JenDev too long). That was the last time the Patriots were part of the postseason -- a first-round WNIT loss.

Remember this, too. Milleson lost four starters when she inherited this team, including Amber Easter (9.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Rahneeka Saunders (10.9 ppg) and Joyous Tharrington (6.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg). (Kudos to senior forward Janaa Pickard, too, the lone starting returning, who averages 13.8 ppg and a team-best 8.6 rpg.)

As far as the growing pains Milleson referred to, we know they're something Radford's Mike McGuire and William and Mary's Ed Swanson can relate to, as both coaches are also in their first season with new teams. On a look-how-great-a-second-year-can-be note, consider what Marlene Stollings has done in two seasons at VCU.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Chit chat with VCU's Robyn Parks

Robyn and big bro, Rob.
Wanted to check in for a quick chat with VCU's Robyn Parks, the Atlantic 10's leader in scoring (22.3 ppg) and rebounding (9.2 rpg). Think Coach Marlene Stolling isn't happy that Robyn's big bro Rob went to VCU? (That's among the main reasons Robyn cited when signing with the school.)

Robyn and Rob are like glue -- talking or texting daily." He's my best friend," she says. "He comes to all the games."

And always has a text waiting, win or lose that says, "I'm proud of you, Sis!"

It's been a fascinating career so far for Parks, who averaged 3 ppg her freshman year and 6.6 as a sophomore and then….a league-best 18.7 as a junior? For more perspective, consider she scored 309 points in her first 63 games and 1,118 in her last 55. Explanation, please?

"When I came in here as a freshman and a sophomore, I didn't have good seasons, so my confidence was shot," she admits. And a nagging foot injury didn't help.

Conversations with Stollings and assistant Niki Dawkins set her mind straight, and Parks has flourished in Fury, the uptempo offense that doesn't give its opponents a breather.

Speaking of breathers, Parks gets one these days thanks to the talent around her, including a crop of freshman who were instrumental in VCU's wins this season over defending A-10 champ St. Joseph's and Duquesne.

Says Stollings, "There's not as much a burden on her to do so much on her own. I think we've been able to open her up, having more scoring around her so they can't key on her as much. Last year they could double team her, sometimes triple team her, and we have a lot of outlets for that. Also, giving her a rest more in games allows her to play fresher and stay sharper."

And she's added a weapon to the package -- the 3 ball. Parks has drained 17 of 'em this season.

"I'm excited about that," Stollings said. "We told her in the offseason she would have the green light as long as she put in the work. She's getting more and more comfortable shooting it, particularly in transition."

As for who's the person behind the scoring and rebounding, that would be a military brat; dad Robert is retired from the Air Force after a 22-year career. That meant living in Turkey -- which Robyn doesn't remember -- and Guam -- which she does. "It was beautiful. We used to go to the beach every weekend. Every summer we'd go to Hawaii."

Dad was the coach of the women's Air Force team and Robyn was a tagalong when he played pickup at the gym. "It's always been about basketball," says Parks, whose faves to watch are Kevin Durant and Seimone Augustus.

On Durant: "He's my all-time favorite player. Plus he's from Maryland."

On Augustus: "Everything she does is finesse. So smooth."

Parks is a CSI buff majoring in criminal justice ("Criminal Minds" and "Law & Order SVU" are also on her must-see-TV list.) "I want to be a crime scene investigator," she says.

She wants to play overseas or in the WNBA if the opportunity presents. She says in touch with former Ram Andrea Barbour, now playing in Finland.

And the just-for fun-question we wind this up with? What wouldn't folks know about Robyn Parks.

"I love to dance," she says. Especially if Gucci Mane is playing….

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Emotional tribute hits home for UTEP coach

Given the powerful emotions swirling throughout Old Dominion's annual Hoops for the Cure ceremonies, it would have been understandable if UTEP coach Keitha Adams had sequestered her team in the locker room during the event to focus on the game.

Instead, Adams and the Miners stood in front of their courtside seats Saturday at the Constant Center and soaked in every bit of it, from the triumphant Survivor Walk and the giant canvas in tribute to the remarkable Sara Jones - the cancer-stricken volunteer assistant to head coach Karen Barefoot who passed away a year ago to the day - to the poignant images on the overhead big screens.

"I had a couple of kids with tears running down their faces after that," Adams said. "We all know what cancer can do, so (staying out there) was just our way of trying to be respectful and understanding. And it was beautiful. Everyone that went by, I just said 'God bless' because, it's just such a big battle."

Keitha Adams
The fight against cancer became even more personal for Adams last summer after her father, Lowell Adams, passed away at age 79 on Aug. 13.

"My kids all know what I've been going through," Adams said. "This is my first season without my dad, so it's something that's pretty close to my family as well."

But while the Miners may have been wrestling with their emotions, the Lady Monarchs appeared to draw strength from the proceedings. From the opening tip they rebounded voraciously, continually beat the Miners to 50-50 balls and executed crisply at both ends to seize an eight-point lead at intermission.  Given the quality of the opponent, a case can be made that it was Old Dominion's finest 20-minute stretch of the season. 

The idea that the Lady Monarchs were playing for something larger than themselves wasn't lost on Adams.

"I do believe there was some lining up of the stars there," the coach said. "We've all seen athletes have amazing performances because of added motivation, and I know (Sara Jones) was a tremendous loss."

But there are reasons why the Miners may be the team to beat in Conference USA, and those were on full display over the final 20 minutes. From Kayla Thornton's ability to take over games for stretches and the explosive Jenzel Nash's talent for getting buckets in bunches to some canny defensive adjustments, the Miners had enough poise to absorb ODU's early haymakers and pull away late for a 10-point win. 

"I've got some really competitive kids in there," Adams said after the Miners bagged their seventh straight win. "They outplayed us in the first half. But when we came back out, we did what we needed to do."

With the victory, UTEP improved to 20-4 and 9-2 in Conference USA, one game behind league-leading Middle Tennessee State, tied in the loss column with Tulane and East Carolina and a game ahead of Southern Miss (8-3). Obviously the Miners would love to catch/pass the Blue Raiders, but the key is to remain among the league's top four teams. Seeds one through four receive double-byes in the Conference USA Tournament and will start out three victories away from winning the title. Seeds five through eight will need to win four games, and everyone else faces an unlikely five-games-in-five-days gauntlet. 

Meanwhile, the Lady Monarchs (11-14, 4-7) are tied for ninth place in CUSA and face a make-or-break two-game Texas road swing this week (at Rice on Wednesday, at UTSA on Saturday. Basically, ODU needs to go 5-0 or 4-1 in its last five regular-season games to give itself a realistic shot at a deep run in the conference tournament. The good news is that four of ODU's five opponents have losing overall records. The bad news is three of the five games are on the road, and the Lady Monarchs are 2-8 in true road games this season.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Remember Sara Jones tonight at ODU's pink game

Plan on attending the Old Dominion pink game on Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Constant Center if you can. Indeed, you'll see ODU vs. UTEP, but admittedly, we're partial to the pre-game ceremony honoring breast cancer survivors. It redefines the word "moving."

Of course, our thoughts turn to former ODU volunteer assistant Sara Jones, who we lost a year ago. Who was Sara Jones? Read her story here.

See you tonight.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Who's got NCAA or WNIT potential?

Now that we've hit the business end of the regular season, which teams are in the mix for an NCAA bid, who's likely headed to the WNIT, and who needs some March Madness in their conference tournament to avoid packing up the uniforms for good?

First, keep in mind that:

- Since winning a conference tournament title guarantees an NCAA slot, technically every team outside of the Ivy League is still alive for that event. The Ivy has no tournament and sends its regular-season champion to the NCAAs.

- The highest finisher in each conference that doesn't make the NCAA's receives an automatic bid to the WNIT.

- Teams must have a least a .500 record to receive a WNIT at-large bid.

- RPIs listed below are as of Feb. 10 from the NCAA official website.

With all that as a backdrop, here's a team-by-team breakdown of the possibilities:

Toia Giggetts
JMU (19-4, 9-0 CAA): From drumming Virginia and UCLA to knocking off St. John's in its own gym to running roughshod through the Colonial Athletic Association, the Dukes have done just about everything one could ask to not just qualify to the NCAAs but get a competitive seed and a real chance to do damage once they get there. (By the way, the St. John's victory gets stronger by the day, as the Red Storm now boast a Top-25 ranking and a Top-15 RPI.) Delaware was a No. 6 seed out of this conference last season, and something like that isn't out of the question for the Dukes if they win out and capture the CAA Tournament title. And like those Blue Hens, these Dukes have Sweet 16 potential. But while JMU looks like a prohibitive favorite to run the Colonial table,  some challenges lie ahead. Road games at Drexel and at Delaware within a four-day span next week could be daunting, particularly the trip to Newark, Del. Yes, JMU blasted the Blue Hens by 36 points in Harrisonburg, but it was a three-point game at halftime. In addition, no one should ever take for granted winning three games in three days at a neutral site, the requirement for capturing the CAA Tournament crown. Having said that, we believe these Dukes can survive a stumble or two and still get at-large approval. But of course, if they keep playing the way they've been playing, it won't come to that.
   JMU's stretch run: Friday vs. UNC Wilmington (RPI 289); Sunday at Drexel (110); Feb. 20 at Delaware (125); Feb. 23 vs. Hofstra (159); Feb. 27 at Charleston (149); March 2 vs. William and Mary (278); March 5 at Northeastern (185).

Faith Randolph
Virginia (12-11, 5-5 ACC): Anything remains possible for the Cavaliers, from playing in the NCAA Tournament to not qualifying for the postseason at all. Now, clearly Virginia's NCAA margin-for-error is razor-thin at this point. But they do have quality wins over Florida State and Maryland, and games remaining against likely/certain NCAA participants North Carolina, N.C. State and Florida State. If the Cavs can bag 2-3 of those, then slay another heavyweight or two in the ACC Tournament, even a 12- or 13-loss Virginia team could make a solid case for NCAA inclusion based on how teams have historically been selected. On the other hand, if the Cavs go 2-4 in their final six regular-season games, they would need two wins in the ACC Tournament just to have the .500 overall record required for WNIT participation. The bottom line is the Cavaliers need a white-hot three-week stretch against a series of really good teams. It's a big ask, no question. But since the Cavaliers made ending a three-year NCAA Tournament drought their stated goal during the preseason, we expect their effort in these games will be off-the-charts.
   Virginia's stretch run: Friday at Georgia Tech (RPI 40); Sunday vs. Virginia Tech (111); Feb. 20 vs. North Carolina (33); Feb. 23 at N.C State (12); Feb. 27 vs. Miami (91); March 2 at Florida State (29).

Alyssa Bennett
Hampton (20-4, 11-0 MEAC): Despite another challenging non-conference schedule and some solid victories (Kansas State, Drexel, Southern Miss), the Lady Pirates weren't able to knock off any likely NCAA Tournament teams and thus are not in line for an at-large bid. Of course, the four-time defending MEAC Tournament champions have done a fine job of inviting themselves to the NCAAs of late and loom as strong favorites to do so again next month. Should the Lady Pirates make it five in a row, the big question will be seeding. The fact that Hampton was relegated to a 15 seed last year and a 16 the year before raised serious questions in our minds about how carefully the NCAA selection committee tries to differentiate the teams at the lower end of the bracket. We know they agonize over who's the fourth No. 1 seed. But when it comes to who's a 14 and who's a 16, it's like, eh, whatever. ESPN's latest mock bracket has Hampton as a 13th seed, which to us feels about right. But we felt the same way the last two years. Let's see what the committee decides. By the way, with a two-game lead for first place with five games left and a 41-game winning streak against MEAC foes, Hampton will almost certainly go into the MEAC Tournament assured of at least a WNIT bid.
   Hampton's stretch run: Saturday at Norfolk State (RPI 291); Feb. 22 at Howard (252); Feb. 24 at Maryland-Eastern Shore (329); March 1 vs. Norfolk State (291); March 6 vs. North Carolina A&T (91).

Mickayla Sanders
Liberty (14-10, 10-5 Big South): How dominant has Liberty been in the Big South historically? When the Lady Flames suffered back-to-back league losses recently, it marked their first two-game losing streak in conference play since 1997. Still, the preseason feeling that Liberty might be finally be  vulnerable is playing out, and conference rivals that typically haven't had a chance against the Lady Flames are now smelling blood. Thursday's 46-43 loss to Presbyterian was the Lady Flames' fourth setback in its last seven games, and while there's no one in this league Liberty can't beat, even a first-round victory will no longer be a given at the Big South Tournament. Nor is a certainty that Liberty's RPI, which was at 161 before the loss to RPI 303 Presbyterian, will merit a WNIT at-large bid if the Lady Flames don't win the conference. Big South foes had better get Liberty this year, though, because this entire Lady Flames cast will return next season.
   Liberty's stretch run: Saturday at Gardner-Webb (243); Feb. 20 vs. UNC Asheville (273); Feb. 22 vs. Winthrop (116); Feb. 27 at Radford (335); March 1 at Longwood (327).

Isis Thorpe
VCU (18-7, 6-6 Atlantic 10): With an RPI of 112, the Rams are solidly in the mix for a WNIT at-large bid, which would be a significant accomplishment for a team with seven freshmen that won just 12 games last year. A stunning 13-game winning streak raised hopes of an even bigger prize, but the Atlantic 10 schedule has been rough on the Rams of late. Thursday's loss at George Washington was VCU's third in four games, and the Rams are just 4-6 since Jan. 8. That said, we're still giving them at least a puncher's chance of playing their way into the NCAAs by winning the A-10 tourney. Granted, there's a lot working against them pulling this off.  Seven teams are currently ahead of them in the standings, and the Rams are looking at having to win four games over four days to take the crown. Still, this is a team that has won at St. Joseph's, beaten Duquesne and come within four at Dayton. So while we're not exactly betting on the Rams to win the A-10 tourney, we're certainly not betting against them, either.
   VCU's stretch run: Saturday at Rhode Island (328); Wednesday vs. St. Bonaventure (58); Feb. 22 vs. Saint Louis (215); Feb. 26 at Richmond (133).

Galaisha Goodhope
Old Dominion (11-13, 4-6 Conference USA): The Lady Monarchs have very little margin for error if they want to keep playing past their conference tournament. For starters, their RPI (171) is higher than that of teams normally selected for the WNIT. Furthermore, with a 11-13 mark and just six games remaining, they need to make sure they finish with a .500 record to even be considered. Then there's the Conference USA Tournament. The Lady Monarchs are currently tied for 10th place in the 16-team league. Unless they can finish in the top eight, they're looking at having to win five games in five days at two different venues to take the title. The good news for ODU is that with Middle Tenneessee State  (RPI 28), Southern Miss (50), UTEP (51) and East Carolina (62) in the league, the Lady Monarchs will have opportunities over the next three weeks (UTEP on Saturday, East Carolina on March 5. both at home) and possibly in the tournament to bag quality, RPI-friendly wins. But the Lady Monarchs really need to win those games.
   ODU down the stretch: Saturday vs. UTEP (RPI 51); Wednesday at Rice (155); Feb. 22 at Texas-San Antonio (171); Feb. 26 vs. Louisiana Tech (221); March 1 at Florida International (158); March 5 vs. East Carolina (62).

Virginia Tech (11-13, 1-10 ACC): When the Hokies woke up on New Year's Day, they were 10-2 - including victories over Michigan State and Florida - with legitimate NCAA aspirations. Tech has won just one game since, though, and now finds itself scrambling just to become WNIT-eligible. Of their five remaining games, only two - at North Carolina on Feb. 23 and at Maryland on March 2 - fall into the major upset category so winning opportunities will be there. Heck, they might even make a little noise in the ACC Tournament - the talent for such a run is certainly there. But frankly, we're not sure they've ever fully recovered from an early January stretch of close games that didn't go their way. The tough luck resumed Thursday night when Wake Forest hit two free throws with 5 seconds left to nip the Hokies 65-64. The loss dropped Tech to 1-5 in ACC games decided by 7 points or less.
   Virginia Tech down the stretch: Sunday at Virginia (55); Feb. 20 vs. Pittsburgh (123); Feb. 23 at North Carolina (33); Feb. 27 vs. Clemson (137); March 2 at Maryland (24).

Janelle Hubbard
Richmond (11-13, 5-6 Atlantic 10): The more fate tries to kick this team in the face, the more these Spiders duck and kick back - hard. Richmond has been hit with so many injuries to key players the team that's sitting out is almost as good as the team that suits up. Remarkably, though, each injury somehow seems to only make the healthy players stronger. Their latest "we ain't dead yet" statement came Tuesday night when freshman Janelle Hubbard scored a career-high 29 points and hit the game-winning jumper at the end of the second overtime for 79-77 triumph over a quality Fordham team (RPI 56). Next Spider up, indeed. The win was particularly satisfying since the Spiders came in with a 1-6 record in games decided by 5 points or less, including most recently Saturday's 63-62 loss to VCU in which Gen Okoro's potential game-winning bucket came a split-second after the final buzzer.  Turn even a couple of those results around and the Spiders would be close to a WNIT lock; as it is they're going to have to scramble to just to get the required .500 record. Only a fool would count these guys out, though, and no one's going to be eager to play them in the A-10 Tournament, either.
   Richmond down the stretch: Saturday at Dayton (RPI 19); Wednesday at UMass (283); Feb. 22 vs. George Washington (108); Feb. 26 vs. VCU (112); March 1 at George Mason (287).

 The following teams have little to no mathematical shot at an at-large bid to either tournament. But again, conference tournaments await, so hope springs eternal.

Norfolk State (10-11, 6-4 MEAC) can finish with a winning record but has an RPI of 291, well outside of WNIT at-large bid range. The MEAC Tournament is in Norfolk, though. . . George Mason (7-18, 1-11 Atlantic 10) took out six weeks worth of frustration during Wednesday's 101-78 throttling of hapless UMass for their first victory in 2014. But they'll need at least two more wins to avoid the A-10 tourney's one-game play-in contest and the scenario of having to win five games in five days. . . Injuries and a lack of offense/rebounding have short-circuited last year's Big South Cinderella Longwood (7-18, 4-12 Big South). The Lancers were surprise tournament finalists in 2013. . . William and Mary (5-17, 2-8 CAA) and Radford (7-18, 5-11 Big South) are experiencing the typical growing pains that come when a new coach takes over a program that graduated a bevy of seniors. But after losing its first 15 games against Division I foes, Radford has gone 5-3 since Jan. 16 and has won four of its last five. Could the Highlanders be this year's Longwood at the Big South tourney?

Monday, February 3, 2014

ODU-Marshall: "Are you kidding me?"

It's funny, if someone told you only the basics of Saturday night's Marshall-Old Dominion - Shae Kelley had 24 points and 17 rebounds as the Lady Monarchs beat the Thundering Herd by 13 points - you'd probably think, pretty routine, huh?

Yeah, right.

25 things about Saturday night at the Constant Center

Shae Kelley
- At the final media timeout with 3:50 to play, ODU trailed 48-38. Against the last-place team in Conference USA. With Marshall missing its best player. At home.

- The Lady Monarchs promptly scored the final 10 points of regulation, the first nine of overtime and 27 of the final 31.

- It all made for a rare night of late-game drama for the Lady Monarchs, whose typical M.O. has been to either win big or lose big. Only three ODU games have been decided by single digits this season.

- A big shoutout to an encouraging and extremely patient Lady Monarchs crowd that pounced on every opportunity to cheer the team on during a rough opening 36 minutes and was at full throat throughout ODU's fantastic finish. Frankly, for large stretches it looked like ODU was toast. Yet somehow, the fans never lost the faith. And when the crowd began chanting "O-D-U!" as the final seconds ticked off, well, let's just say that, for the first time in a while, it felt like old times in that building.

- ODU coach Karen Barefoot is now 2-0 on "Barefootin' Night." Coincidence?

- Of course it's coincidence! Nice little nugget, though.

- As is often the case with runs like this, ODU's defense keyed the surge, as the Lady Monarchs reduced the Thundering Herd's halfcourt offense to a series of east-west passes some 35 feet from the basket. Marshall had five turnovers and no field goal attempts over the final 3:50 of regulation.

- ODU forwards Shae Kelley and Chelisa Painter also started crushing it on the offensive boards. Kelley scored on a third-chance hoop and added a free throw to get the Lady Monarchs within six. The next time down court, Painter gobbled up a Becca Allison miss and stuck it back. And the next time, Painter collected the rebound of a Galaisha Goodhope miss, got fouled and made 1 of 2 from the line to get ODU within three.

- That's three possessions, four offensive rebounds if you're scoring at home.

- The combination of ferocious defense at one end and got-to-have-it rebounding at the other made it appear as though the Lady Monarchs were simply refusing to walk off the court losers.

- Which made us wonder, where was this attitude over the opening 36 minutes?

- Yet it all still might not have been enough if Kelley hadn't buried a 3-pointer with 23 seconds left to force the OT.

- At the time she released the shot, Kelley was 2 of 16 from 3-point range this season.

- Yet she said she knew it was good as soon as it left her hand.

- Confident young woman, that Shae.

- Still, we can't help thinking there were more than a few Lady Monarchs fans that, as Kelley rose up, were going "No, no, no...Yes!!!"

- Jotted down the following notes while watching the Lady Monarchs struggle through the first half:
   - Handing the ball like it's a ticking bomb
   - Cockeyed shooting aim.
   - Settle down! Thundering Herd D speeding ODU up; Lady Monarchs playing as though there's a 10-second shot clock.

- And those were the positives.

- In fairness to ODU, Marshall played much better than its record, particularly on defense.

- That said, that was as feeble an offensive 20 minutes as the Lady Monarchs have mustered all season.

- Since we didn't want to put the team on blast publicly, we kept it short and sweet on Twitter:

- In hopes of changing the dynamic, stayed in the press room as the second half began.

- Full disclosure - part of the reason was to keep tabs on the ridiculously good Duke-Syracuse men's basketball game airing on the press room TV (that C.J. Fair is the shizzle!). But I also hoped that when I returned to courtside, the real Lady Monarchs would have showed up.

- Unfortunately, when I peeked at the scoreboard, ODU was still down 12. So back I went to Duke-Syracuse.

- When I finally tore myself away from the Orange and the Blue Devils, about 15 (regulation) minutes remained in ODU-Marshall.

- Naturally, the Syracuse-Duke game turned out to be a classic.

- Fortunately, after a really, really, REALLY rough start, the Lady Monarchs wound up putting on a pretty memorable show, too.

Click here to read more about ODU's 65-52 victory over Marshall.