Sunday, March 30, 2014

Surgery on April 1 for James Madison's Evans

Surgery is just a bit more than 24 hours away for Dawn Evans.

The James Madison graduate will receive her cousin Erika's kidney on April 1. The 3 1/2-hour operation, Dawn explains in this six-minute video, will begin at 7 a.m. Central Time at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

"It's so real to me," Evans says in the video. "I'm excited, blessed about the whole circumstance."

She is also grateful that Erika is a good match. (You can read our story on Erika Evans here.)  If the operation is a success, Dawn will be able to dump the bag of 47 medications she takes every day for just five. When she heals, Dawn is planning to return to France to play basketball.

The video is her way of thanking all her supporters. "From the bottom, bottom of my heart, I thank  you," she says.

Dawn is suffering from focal segmental glomerular sclerosis.

We'll keep you posted on news.

You've got this, Dawn and Erika.

Monday, March 24, 2014

JMU snaps state drought in NCAAs

Yes, JMU's 72-63 decision over Gonzaga Sunday gave the 11th-seeded Dukes their first NCAA tournament win since 1991. But it also snapped a one-and-done drought for teams across the state.

The victory was the first in the NCAAs by a Division I Virginia school since 2009, when fifth-seeded Virginia opened tournament play with a 68-61 win over No. 12 Marist. The bottom fell out in the next round, though, as the Cavaliers fell 99-73 to a Cal team coached by current Virginia leader Joanne Boyle.

Two other state programs, Liberty and VCU, lost first-round games in 2009. And over the next four years, the 10 schools from the state that qualified for the NCAAs dropped their openers as well.

Earlier Sunday, the streak continued when Hampton fell to Michigan State.

The Dukes' victory over No. 6 Gonzaga also marked the first time a lower-seeded Virginia team prevailed in the tournament since 2008, when No. 5 Old Dominion nipped No. 4 Virginia 88-85 in overtime at the Constant Center for a berth in the Sweet 16.

For the last time a lower-seeded team from Virginia won on a neutral court, one has to go back to 2005. That year, 13th-seeded Liberty topped No. 4 Penn State 78-70 in College Park, Md. The Lady Flames went on to knock off No. 5 DePaul, too, before falling to No. 1 LSU.

By the way, in 2005 five Virginia teams made the NCAAs (Liberty, Old Dominion, Richmond, Virginia and Virginia Tech), the most of any state except California (7). Ah, the good ol' days....

On Tuesday, JMU will face No. 3 Texas A&M in second-round action in College Station, Texas. The last time a lower-seeded school from Virginia beat a higher seed in a true road game? In 2002, No. 7 Old Dominion ousted No. 2 Purdue 74-70 in overtime to advance to the Sweet 16. The Lady Monarchs went on to crush Kansas State before falling to arguably the greatest of the great UConn teams in the Elite Eight. That Huskies team featured four senior All-Americans. The fifth player was some sophomore named Diana Taurasi.

Virginia schools in the NCAA 
(since 2009)

2009 - Virginia (defeated No. 12 Marist, lost to No. 4 Cal); Liberty (lost to No. 3 Louisville); VCU (lost to No. 10 Rutgers)

2010 - Hampton (lost to No. 2 Duke); JMU (lost to No. 8 Temple); Liberty (lost No. 4 Kentucky); Virginia (lost to No. 12 Green Bay)

2011 - Hampton (lost to No. 4 Kentucky); JMU (lost to No. 6 Oklahoma)

2012 - Hampton (lost to No. 1 Stanford); Liberty (lost to No. 1 Notre Dame)

2013 - Liberty (lost to No. 4 Purdue); Hampton (lost to No. 2 Duke)

2014 - Hampton (lost to No. 5 Michigan State); JMU (defeated No. 6 Gonzaga; who knows what's next?)

Click here for JMU's extensive coverage of Sunday's victory, including full postgame quotes.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hampton: 12th seed, 12 reasons to believe

NCAA Today
No. 12 Hampton (28-4) vs. No. 5 Michigan State (22-9
12:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Carmichael Arena, Chapel Hill, N.C. (University of North Carolina)

In honor of Hampton earning a No. 12 seed in the NCAA championships - the highest ever for a MEAC team in the NCAA's 64-team tournament era - we offer up 12 reasons why Hampton can topple Michigan State in Sunday's first round:

- MEAC teams are 0-20 in the NCAAs since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1994. No one beats MEAC teams 21 times in a row.

- The good thing about being a lower seed on a neutral court is the natural tendency to root for the underdog can kick in and the lower seed can feel as though it's playing a home game. So if the Lady Pirates get on a roll today, they may be able to feed off the energy of North Carolina fans who not only want to see an upset but will also be angling for an easier second-round matchup for the home team.

- Memo to Tar Heel Nation - be careful what you wish for.

- Think Michigan State has all the marquee talent? Think again. Hampton's Alyssa Bennett was ranked No. 32 on ESPN's list of the nation's top 100 recruits in 2009. That's a higher ranking than any Michigan State starter and all but one player on the entire Spartans roster (guard Branndais Agee was at No. 28 on the 2012 list). In other words, for much of the game the most highly-regarded prospect on the floor will be a Lady Pirate.

- At No. 12, Hampton is the highest-seeded MEAC entrant in the 64-team era. At No. 5, Michigan State is the lowest-seeded MEAC opponent. The seeding gap has never been closer.

- And as we all know, No. 12 seeds beat No. 5 seeds all the time, right?

- Wait, that's the men's tournament. Heading into this year, women's No. 12s have won just 17 of the 80 meetings with No. 5s in the 20-year 64-team era. But on Saturday, No. 12 BYU spanked No. 5 N.C. State, and No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast led most of the way before falling 61-60 in overtime to Oklahoma State. So far, it's been a great year to be sitting in that 12-spot.

- Michigan State's Annalise Pickrel and Hampton's Shellis Hampton were high school teammates on a state championship team at Grand Rapids Catholic Central. How does this increase Hampton's chances of winning? Well, it doesn't. But it's pretty cool nonetheless.

- Hampton beat Virginia Tech. Michigan State lost to Virginia Tech. It's yet another indication that there's not as much daylight between the two teams as the seeding suggests.

- Over the last three years, Hampton has faced Stanford (with Chiney AND Nneka Ogwumike), Duke, Kentucky, Florida, LSU, Kansas State, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, Virginia Tech, Boston College and Pittsburgh, among others. So playing big-time teams is nothing new for the Lady Pirates. It's more like a way of life. By the way, in 15 games over the teams listed above the past three years, Hampton went 8-7.

- How strong is Hampton's defense? The Lady Pirates knocked off Coppin State in the MEAC final despite shooting just 26.2 percent. Just imagine what the Lady Pirates might do if they actually knock down shots.

- Ultimately, we feel the Lady Pirates' ability to do just that will be the biggest key to Sunday's game. We know Hampton will defend. But the phrase "defense wins championships" is only true to a point. Defense wins "MEAC" championships. But to knock off a team the caliber of Michigan State, the Lady Pirates will likely need some offensive firepower, too. With Bennett and guards Nicole Hamilton, Malia Tate-DeFreitas and Kenia Cole, the Lady Pirates have four players that can get you 20 on any given night. Offensive consistency has been somewhat elusive for Hampton, and Michigan State can be stout defensively. But if two or more of the Lady Pirate scorers are feeling it Sunday, we love Hampton's chances.

Hampton game notes

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

JMU's Kirby and sisters Jordan and Cassidy, Burkholder that is, are quite a bunch

Cassidy, Jordan and Kirby

Don't confuse Kirby Burkholder with Jan Brady, even though she is the middle child.

Are we dating ourselves in this blog? Remember Marcia, Jan, Cindy?

Meet Jordan, Kirby and Cassidy, and even though James Madison forward Kirby is the CAA Player of the Year, it’s not all about Kirby, Kirby, Kirby in this family.

Ahem, Jordan was Player of the Year in the ODAC, and “I’m better at softball,” she says. “Hands down.” Credit Jordan, too, for one season of lacrosse at Bridgewater College where Cassidy is only halfway through her basketball career. (Pst. That's also Mom's alma mater.) While there’s still potential for Cassidy to join her sisters with a Player of the Year honor, for now the older sisters only concede this.

“She’s better at school,” Kirby says.

And, they agree with wicked grins, "Cassidy is the good one.”

"You guys are a bad influence on me," Cassidy says.

You see Jordan, 24, and Kirby, 22, tended to gang up on Cassidy, 19, just a few times when the sisters were younger.  At least that’s how “the good one” frames it.

Jordan is a bit more blunt about it, and Kirby can recall getting socked by Jordan -- just once, though.

“Man, Kirby and I used to run over Cassidy. We have home videos,” Jordan says. “Me and Cassidy were so far apart in age. We didn’t start bonding till she got into high school. Now we’re all closer. We’re best friends. There’s nothing we don’t tell each other.”

They/re movie pals, going-out-to-eat friends and ardent supporters of each other. Jordan lives in Northern Virginia these days where she is a substitute teacher with plans to attend Mary Baldwin for graduate school in special education. But she’s still a regular at James Madison games along with Cassidy and the parents. The whole clan was together for the CAA Tournament where they saw JMU roll past Delaware and into the NCAA Tournament (the Dukes are a 11 seed playing No. 6 Gonzaga in College Station, Texas on Sunday.)

"We're going to Texas!" Jordan tweeted shortly after Monday's bracket unveiling.

Everybody, that is.

Seems like where you’ll find one Burkholder, you’ll find at least one more. They all played at Turner Ashby High; all were 1,000-point scorers who often made their way into the back yard to shoot hoops on the cement pad.

They were never competitive with each other when it came to basketball. “When we played pickup, we tried to be on the same team,” Kirby says.

Cassidy is scrappy on defense and Jordan physical in the post. Kirby is finesse, and yep, maybe a  little bit stronger of a player, defenitely the 3-point ace.

"I'm a better sleeper," Jordan says.

22 rebounds for Kirby in the CAA tourney semi? "Way to go, Kirbs," Cassidy tweeted.

The up-and-under is vintage Burkholder, no matter the first name. “It’s the only move I learned in high school, and I guess it stuck with all of us,” Jordan says.

Jordan, if you can't tell, is the most vocal. Asked what she does better on the court than Kirby, she answers, “Talking. I’m a talker. I’m not a shy player. Now you see her get a little more fired up, it being her senior year. I love it when she gets feisty."

Kirby has a dry wit, enough of one that Mom often jokes about Kirby’s red hair. You see the man next door has red hair, and he’s a postman….

Kirby loves clothes, and she buys them a lot, her sisters say. “Online,” Kirby says and Cassidy confers.

“She has them delivered to the house and sometimes three boxes come in one day. I just wanna peek inside.”

Mom’s take on Kirby’s fashion: “If you see something weird, that’s Kirby.”

“Sometimes we see something and say, ‘Kirby would wear that. And Cassidy and I, we wouldn’t,” Jordan says.  “I’m more the tomboy.”

Kirby says Jordan has a lot of shoes.

“Me? She has more shoes than anybody I know,” Jordan responds.

“Sneakers, heels, boots – I buy them all,” Kirby admits.

"If only we wore the same size," laments Cassidy, who wears an 8 to Kirby's 9 1/2.

“Nobody has more sneakers than Jordan,” Cassidy says. 

They just got puppies. They’re 2 months old, and Kirby clarifies. Mom and Jordan got puppies. The family dog, Tank, died recently at 4 ½ after a short bout with cancer. The two new lab mixes are named Bruno and Ryle; Bruno is the boy with Mom, and Ryle lives with Jordan.

“I like dogs as long as they’re not licking me all over, and I don’t want to be responsible,” Kirby says.

“They’re really cute" is Cassidy's take.  

When they’re together, they usually just hang out and giggle at the dinner table. “We can’t sit at the table without somebody laughing. We don’t even have to talk,” Jordan says. “Kirby is always talking so fast, half the time you don’t know what she’s saying. Cassidy, she’s the nerd of the family. Me, I guess, I’m the quote unquote dumb one. I mean not really dumb. There’s never a dull moment when we’re together.”

There were fun games in their cousin's basement and repeated viewings of "Gremlins."

They have an ongoing group text. They love to eat. Cassidy has a super sweet tooth.

Kirby and Cassidy will pick up a book. Not Jordan. “I hate to read,” she says. 

They used to camp where they played games, making up the rules along the way. 

Every Christmas Day they go to the movies. Speaking of Christmas, here’s a Kirby hint, Mom. She’d like a new car. Now a Range Rover would be really nice, but if she has to, she’d settle for a Nissan Maxima or Altima.

And as for cars. ...

"Remember that time you wrecked Dad's truck? You said you were going to a friend's house . . ." Kirby starts and Jordan stops her.

"Remember when you got your license and you were never home?" Jordan counters.

They joke, goof, prank – Kirby dumped a mess of cold water on Jordan in the shower once. But they support, and right now all the love goes to Kirby, bound for the NCAA Tournament.

“She’s worked so hard,” Jordan says. “Kenny (Brooks) works with them every second he can. To see her go from wanting to transfer to sticking with it to Player of the Year; we just love to see her do well.

“I didn’t think I’d be so much into this, seeing her play, but it's almost like I'm out there playing.  As long as she’s out there, we’re just there to support her. It's just great to see her succeed and grow inside and out.”

Monday, March 17, 2014

JMU, HU NCAA bound; what's everybody sayin'?

NCAA, WNIT and WBI projections

The NCAA tournament field will be announced Monday night, with the WNIT and WBI (Women's Basketball Invitational) brackets to follow later that evening. So which of the teams in Virginia will get to keep playing?


- Hampton, which won its fifth straight MEAC title Saturday, and JMU, which captured the CAA crown for the third time in five years, both earned automatic bids. No other team in Virginia has a realistic shot at an at-large bid.

- When pressed for his opinion on seeding, Hampton coach David Six said he believed a No. 12 was fair. On Sunday, ESPN's final projection also had the Lady Pirates at 12. If the selection committee agrees, Hampton would become the highest-seeded MEAC team since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1994. The previous high was No. 13 by Hampton in 2011.

- Given the curious nature of seeding in previous years - and the fact that the committee can move a team up or down a seed line to maintain various bracket principles - we're prepared to see Hampton seeded anywhere from 12th to 15th.

- For these same reasons, we're expecting JMU to be slotted anywhere from a No. 7 to No. 11.

- That said, we believe seeding is somewhat overrated, and that the most important factors are the matchup with a given opponent and where the game is played. If Hampton and JMU can get neutral-court games versus teams they match up well with, their fans should be doing cartwheels no matter what number is next to the teams' names on the bracket.


- There have been exceptions, but generally speaking, if a team doesn't make the NCAA field but has an RPI of 135 or lower and at least a .500 record, that team is extremely likely to get invited to this tournament.

- VCU has a 22-9 record and an RPI of 100 according to Collegiate Basketball News and 97 as calculated by (the NCAA's latest RPI figures have yet to be released). VCU looks like a shoe-in for the WNIT.

- Old Dominion (17-15, RPI 127 CBN, RPI 130 realtime) also seems likely to get a bid, although we'll hedge just a bit until we see the official NCAA numbers. About a month ago, ODU was a longshot for this tournament. But in winnng six of their last seven games, the Lady Monarchs appear to have played their way in.

- Until we see the NCAA RPI, we're putting Liberty (20-11, RPI 137 CBN, RPI 131 realtime) on the WNIT bubble.

- The WNIT requires at least a .500 overall record before handing out an at-large bid, so Virginia (14-17), Virginia Tech (14-16), Richmond (14-16), Norfolk State (12-16), George Mason (8-23), Radford (7-23), Longwood (8-22) and William and Mary (8-21) are all ineligible for consideration.

- There's a lot of rebuilding going on in this here Commonwealth.

- An automatic WNIT bid goes to the highest finisher in each conference that doesn't make the NCAAs regardless of record, but none of the above teams are positioned to get in this way, either. Only Virginia has even a remote chance, and the Cavaliers would need nine ACC teams, including 16-14 Miami, to be invited to the NCAAs. Can't see that happening.


- This tournament, now in its fifth year, has no overall record requirement. But of the 64 teams that have played in the previous four WBIs, all but three have had .500 or better records.

- Based on the previous four seasons, the typical WBI team has 16-20 wins, double-digit losses, and RPI of 140 or higher and plays in one of the so-called mid-major conferences. None of the teams in Virginia that are unlikely to receive NCAA or WNIT bids fits this profile.

- But if Liberty gets snubbed by the WNIT and still wants to play more basketball, the Lady Flames would very well wind up being the strongest team in this field. And the team with the best pre-tournament RPI has won three of the four WBI titles.

- Of course, we hope it doesn't come to that.

- Only three teams from the so-called major conferences have ever played in this tournament. Not surprisingly, they were also the only three teams to get in with losing records - Louisville (Big East) and Washington (Pac-12) in 2010 and Minnesota (Big Ten) in 2012. So we have to acknowledge the possibility - however remote - that Virginia and/or Virginia Tech could wind up in this field. We'd be stunned if the Cavaliers or Hokies got involved in the WBI, but we did want to point out that if either of these teams were desperate to keep playing, there is one tournament that would probably have them.

Hard not to be in awe of Kenny Brooks and this JMU team

Take a moment before Monday's selection show to revel in the season James Madison has produced.

Indeed, the Dukes (27-5) are CAA Tournament champions, who won their league games by an average of 20.3 ppg. They opened the season with a victory over Virginia and haven't underwhelmed since.

We're not overlooking losses to Wright State, Vanderbilt, North Carolina, Mississippi State and College of Charleston. Wright State was by two on December 1 (the Raiders are Horizon League champs by the way); Mississippi State was on Nov. 30. Vandy was OT, and at North Carolina was a near miss, 74-71. (Three of those four will be NCAA Tournament teams; Mississippi State is headed to the WNIT.)  College of Charleston was a hiccup in the CAA, a rare off morning -- as the game was played before a throng of school children in TD Arena.

These aren't excuses, they're facts -- enough to say it's hard to find too many blemishes with this JMU bunch that finished 15-1 in the CAA, was never threatened in the conference tournament and had quality wins over UCLA and St. John's.

Senior Night for Nikki and Kirby
They have five starters who are the envy of every team in the league. Kirby Burkholder seemed like a role player at best as a freshman, averaging a forgettable 1.3 ppg. Then she became a contributing starter for two years and finally CAA Player of the Year as a senior, five 3-pointers shy of holding the career record in the league. Her transformation is testimony to a work ethic that more players should emulate.

Nikki Newman is nothing short of a player who has an impact on every possession -- someone who does so many of the small things right on the court that they add up to team MVP. Coach Kenny Brooks might as well be suiting up when Newman is on the floor. She is that smart about what to do when, and she is that much of a leader.

Toia Giggetts has gotten better every year (25 straight games scoring double figures and counting), and Precious Hall, a double-figure scorer in 15 of her  last 16 games  were both named all-conference and made the all-tournament team over the weekend. Jazmon Gwathmey is the lone starter who was not named all conference, and guess what? She scored a career-high 20 with 14 boards against Delaware in the CAA championship game and was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Her potential is WNBA scary.

Love Angela Mickens' speed. Like what Lauren Okafor could bring to the post next season and ditto for Da'Lishia Griffin. Not doubting a future for Crystal Ross, either.

It's hard to say enough good things about Brooks, whose Dukes teams have won at least 24 games and reached the postseason for the last 10 years. We don't know if he was in the mix for the Virginia and Virginia Tech jobs a few years back -- hope it was his choice if the answer was no -- but if he wasn't, the only question is why not? JMU is no flash in the pan. He and an all-Dukes coaching staff develop players in a manner that leads to the consistency reminiscent of former Old Dominion teams. This particular group is so well balanced that you never know who the offense will come from, you just believe it will be there.

Wonderfully refreshing about this team is that Burkholder and Newman are homegrown kids from up the street -- Turner Ashby High in Harrisonburg. Brooks has known each since she was 10, and jokes he spent "about $10 to recruit them." Both received a sentimental Senior Night sendoff before a record-breaking crowd of 6,590 at the JMU Convo Center on March 2.

So take a bow Dukes, coaches, fans, and enjoy the dance. You deserve to be the winners you are.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Follow us for the CAA Tournament in Upper Marlboro

No horses today, just CAA basketball!
Join LadySwish at this link as we're blogging for the CAA all weekend from The Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md. Will keep you posted on all the games, and of course, your JMU Dukes at the 2014 CAA Tournament.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Previewing the CAA: Can anybody beat JMU?

It's anybody's tournament. It'll be a dogfight. Everybody's a contender.

Well, sure. But we're putting all the big bucks LadySwish has raked in over the years on James Madison.

Barring catastrophe or major upset -- and indeed both do happen -- we expect Kirby and Nikki to be wearing huge smiles mid-Sunday afternoon, and Kenny Brooks not to be answering questions about JMU's potential for an at-large bid. Now we could have said the same thing a year ago -- insert Delaware players and coach in place of JMU names in above sentence, and indeed Drexel almost pulled the stunner. But a JMU loss would be as shocking as Tina Martin showing up in pastels, and here's why.

These Dukes are the best team in the state and the best team in the CAA. No slight to College of Charleston -- the lone league team to interrupt what looked to be a league sweep -- but should the teams meet in the final, our nudge goes to JMU. The game won't be in Charleston nor will 1,895 screaming schoolchildren be in the stands (though those lil Dukes can be rowdy). All credit to Natasha Adair's five seniors for the 85-78 victory on Feb. 27 that puts a blemish on the JMU slate, and makes a win mandatory given the committee's disdain for giving the league an at-large bid. Prior to that loss, the Dukes hadn't dropped a game since nearly upsetting North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Jan. 2. 

Why are we so confident in JMU? Kirby Burkholder is the best player in the CAA and a senior. Nikki Newman -- who Brooks calls the team MVP -- is the best defensive player in the CAA and has transformed herself into a strong point guard as a fifth-year senior. While JMU has produced some fine memories in the WNIT, we imagine Kirby and Nikki aren't going to settle for another trip there. Toia, Precious and Jazmon aren't bit players, either. Player-for-player, this Dukes team has put together a marvelous 25-5 season that should continue Sunday with their first trophy since 2011. And we'd bet they'll be plenty of purple behind them to make sure it happens.

But, but, but

Yep, there's always one of those. Delaware is the second seed, and indeed we don't put much past Martin, who knows a thing or two about winning conference championships. But the Blue Hens dropped three of their final four, including a puzzling loss to William and Mary, the Tribe's first win over Delaware since '99. But Martin has admitted the season has worn on her 10 freshmen and sophomores, though no doubt a week of rest will do them good. She's eager to see how they react at tournament time and so are we.

We never count out Drexel. Denise Dillon's crew plays incredibly poised ball in big spots -- just ask Martin whose Hens almost succumbed a year ago. Dillon is extremely capable of lulling teams into playing Drexel slow-and-controlled basketball. Watch out if Fiona Flanagan is draining 3s.

And of course, there's the Cougars, who did pull the upset and who are the No. 3 seed in the tournament despite being conference newbies. They're veteran and they're second in offense to JMU and why not be confident given the upset a few weeks ago?


Defending champion: Delaware (two straight)
1. James Madison (25-5, 15-1); 2. Delaware (18-9, 10-6); 3. College of Charleston (16-13, 9-7); 4. Drexel (14-15, 9-7); 5. Hofstra (14-14, 8-8); 6. Towson (13-16, 7-9); 7. Northeastern (12-17, 6-10); 8. William and Mary (8-20, 3-11); 9. UNCW (4-26, 3-13).

Complete bracket

Local starts
UNCW vs. William and Mary, 2 p.m. Thursday
James Madison vs. winner of UNCW/W&M, noon Friday

Faces to watch

Truth be told, we don't know how we will get along without having Nikki Newman to look forward to in the purple. That old cliche about making those around you better? That's Newman, who doesn't always score pretty but lifts her teammates with the gritty  play of a Husky -- no offense, Northeastern. A UConn Husky.

We're going to miss W&M's Kaitlyn Mathieu, too. While we've always wondered if Mathieu sings scat as well as her favorite character in "The Jungle Book," (that would be Baloo), she's a rebound hog with shot blocking prowess, and we can't help but wonder what kind of number she would have put up with Ed Swanson as coach.

Love to watch the unorthodox moves of all-arms-and-legs Jazmon Gwathmey (JMU), and every time we see Northeastern's Jewel Tunstull we wonder why the Huskies don't win more.

On the coaching front, gotta say we love to watch Tina Martin. She's such a blue-collar, tell-it-like-it-is coach who patrols the sidelines with a persistent scowl but is quick to reward her young team with positive energy in the postgame. And as for the pastel reference, we mean it, Coach. You look great in gray!

See you in Upper Marlboro!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Home from Ukraine is sweet for Hampton's Avant

When you head overseas to play basketball, the idea of being in the middle of a worn-torn country seems far fetched.

 One day last month, it became reality after practice for Hampton graduate Keiara Avant and her team, Dynamo Kiev.

"I had just finished when one of my Ukrainen teammates told me about the first bomb," said Avant, who has been back in her Chesapeake, Va., home since March 7. Avant said initially she felt secure because the violence was 15-20 minutes away from her apartment and the gym.

 But when tensions escalated, she retreated to her apartment, holing up for three days. She hit the supermarkets first, stocking up on food, water and dairy.

"All the shelves were empty," she said. "That made it real."

Inside her apartment, she watched the grim news unfold.She saw familiar places burn and violence continue. Whether through text, Facebook or Skye, she kept her family in the loop back home, assuring them she was safe. Her coach told the team to remain calm and that all would improve within a few days.

"They're not coming after you," he reminded.

"Disheartening images" from Kiev, Avant says.
Then Russian troops invaded.Crimea, and Avant realized she needed to leave. The Americans on the men's team had already left for home, one abruptly.

"I knew it was a matter of time, and I didn't want it to be too late," said Avant, one of three Americans on the team along with Nicole Michael (Syracuse) and Kimberly Williams (DePaul). Avant was the first American on her team to left; the others have since returned to the U.S. safely.

She boarded the flight from Kiev to Frankfurt Germany and then another that landed at Washington's Dulles Airport, home to family with balloons and hugs.

"It was an amazing feeling to be back on American soil," she said. "My mom and dad were there to greet me.It was the best I had felt in a while, being there to hold them in my arms."

After Avant left, Dynamo Kiev officially ended its season at 17-1, having played its last game on Feb. 14. The whole episode brought an abrupt close to what had been an enjoyable experience for Avant, who put an accounting job at KPMG on hold to pursue her love of the Russian culture and continue a decorated basketball career. She was Hampton's first Script Athlete of the Year in 2013 and MEAC Player of the Year her senior season with the Pirates, who were conference champions all four of her years. The 5-11 guard averaged 7.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 4.4 apg for Dynamo Kiev.

"I made a lot of friends, and I'm definitely praying for Ukraine," she said. "The people were so nice there, and it's hard to see them have to battle this."

She will be in attendance all week at Scope watching her Pirates defend their MEAC championship. An overseas basketball opportunity is another possibility -- "not in the Ukraine," she promises. Avant is also considering graduate school and perhaps heading directly into her accounting career.

As happy as she is to be back home, she was thrilled on Sunday when she returned to Christian Home Baptist Church in Windsor. "It felt so good to be there," she said. "I couldn't wait to get back to my church."

Can ODU make a CUSA run?

Sure, winning four games in four days is daunting and doubtful.

But it's also doable.

In fact, Southern Cal just did it in the Pac-12. And it's happened in Conference USA three times since 2003, including last year, when 13-16 Tulsa ripped off four straight wins to take the crown. Now, it didn't hurt that Tulsa hosted last year's tournament. And the teams that start out three games from the title - the top four teams received double-byes - have a significant advantage. Still, the idea that winning four straight games in tournament play is too taxing simply isn't supported by the facts. We've seen it before, multiple times. Heck, two years ago, Central Michigan came within a last-second shot of completing a five-game sweep and becoming Mid-American Conference champions.

Over the years, we've had many players tell us they'd rather play games than practice. Add in the excitement and adrenaline that come with postseason play and, well, let's just say we're skeptical of how high fatigue really is on the list of issues facing teams this time of year. When a lower seed loses, the main reason is probably the same in March as it was in November - because they weren't as good as the higher seed.

Now, whether Old Dominion can pull off a four-game postseason run in Conference USA remains to be seen. Shoot, getting two wins will be tough enough. But by winning their last five games, the Lady Monarchs have at least injected a smidge of realism into the thought of some kind of remarkable run. Prior to this stretch, ODU's longest winning streak of the season had been three games.

The biggest reason for the late-season surge - the Lady Monarchs have found their defensive chops. In ODU's last five games, the best an opponent has shot from the field was East Carolina's 36.5 percent. On 12 occasions this season the Lady Monarchs have held an opponent to 36.5 percent shooting or lesss. ODU is 11-1 in those games, with the loss coming at mighty Middle Tennessee State. This includes a 68-57 victory at Wednesday opponent UTSA when the Lady Monarchs limited the Roadrunners to a measly 29.6 percent shooting.

That game highlighted another ODU strength of late - getting contributions from the rest of the roster. Yes, Shae Kelley has been going off, with three games of at least 30 points in the last five. But in that Feb. 22 game at UTSA, Kelley struggled and managed just 12 points on 4 of 13 shooting. Earlier in the season, if Kelley had a night like that, the Lady Monarchs were toast. This time, point guard Galaisha Goodhope, freshman forward Destinee Young and Tiffany Minor, in particular, came through and ODU survived.

Forward Chelisa Painter has quietly developed into arguably the team's most effective player after Kelley. The team's hot streak coincided with the insertion of speedy/heady senior guard Becca Allison into the starting lineup. And freshman forward Odegua Oigbokie consistently produces quality minutes. A lot of folks have been getting it done lately.

But back to the defense. Simply put, when the Lady Monarchs have been difficult to score against, they've almost always been able to find enough offense to win. When they've struggled to defend, victories have been much harder to come by.

The most notable exception came on Jan. 15, when the Lady Monarchs traveled to Hattiesburg, Miss., and outgunned Southern Miss 92-82. The Golden Eagles scored virtually at will, particularly first-team all-conference guard Jamierra Faulkner, who nailed eight 3-pointers and finished with 36 points. But the Lady Monarchs torched Southern Miss by shooting 60.4 percent, which as we detailed in a previous post, matched its best shooting performance of the last 10 years.

Southern Miss would be ODU's quarterfinal opponent if the Lady Monarchs get past UTSA Wednesday. The Lady Monarchs essentially beat the Golden Eagles at their own game in that first meeting, as Southern Miss is the highest-scoring team in the conference. But absent another lights-out shooting performance, ODU is going to have to do a much better job of getting stops to prevail in the rematch.

But even if the Lady Monarchs pull this off, it would only be half the championship battle. They'd still need to win two more games, most likely against teams they lost to in the regular season. Frankly, the most likely scenario is for ODU to win Wednesday, then come up short Thursday against a Southern Miss team that enters this tournament on an 11-game winning streak.

Again, though, the fact that the Lady Monarchs closed with five straight wins of their own at least raises the possibility of some ODU March magic. And the idea that anything's possible, isn't that what makes this time of year so much fun?

Conference USA
Tuesday through Saturday, Moody Coliseum (first three rounds), Haskins Center (semifinals and final)
2013 champion: Tulsa
Seeding: 1. Middle Tennessee State; 2. Southern Miss; 3. UTEP; 4. Tulane; 5. East Carolina; 6. Charlotte; 7. Old Dominion; 8. UAB; 9. Florida Atlantic; 10. Tulsa; 11. North Texas; 12. Rice; 13 Florida International; 14. Louisiana Tech; 15. UTSA; 16. Marshall

Tuesday's results
UTSA 90, Tulsa 89
Louisiana Tech 77, North Texas 59
FIU 85, Rice 65
Marshall 80, Florida Atlantic 73

Today's games
UAB vs. Marshall
East Carolina vs. FIU
Charlotte vs. Louisiana Tech
Old Dominion vs.UTSA, 9:30 p.m.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Previewing the MEAC Tournament

The Hampton Invitational? That's what the MEAC  women's basketball tournament has seemed like in recent years. And as the 2014 event prepares to tip off Monday, the four-time defending champion Lady Pirates appear primed for another championship run.

But as we've already seen in other tournaments around the country, being the No. 1 seed doesn't guarantee anything in the postseason. Of the seven Division I conference tournaments that have been completed through Sunday, only two have been won by the top seed. The winners include three No. 3 seeds (Nebraska in the Big Ten, Fordham in the Atlantic 10 and Winthrop in the Big South), one No. 2 (Tennessee in the SEC) and one No. 5 (USC in the Pac-12) that had to win four games in four days.

Then again, if Hampton was the type of program to take things for granted, the Lady Pirates probably wouldn't have won four in a row in the first place. So let's see if they can buck the early national trend and rack up MEAC title No. 5.

Of course, the MEAC Tournament is about more than just hoops. From Sunday's cheerleading championships through Saturday night's after party, organizers give folks plenty of reasons to not only make the trek to Norfolk, but also to stick around even if their team is eliminated.

But others can critique the social scene. We'll stick to breaking down the basketball.

Monday through Saturday, Scope, Norfolk, Va.

2013 champion: Hampton (4th straight)
Seeding: 1. Hampton (25-4, 16-0); 2. North Carolina A&T (23-5, 13-3); 3. Coppin State (15-13, 12-4); 4. Florida A&M (16-13, 10-6); 5. Savannah State (17-13, 10-6); 6. Norfolk State (12-15, 8-8); 7. Bethune-Cookman (11-17, 8-8); 8. Howard (10-19, 6-10); 9. North Carolina Central (11-18, 6-10); 10. South Carolina State (7-19, 5-11); 11. Maryland-Eastern Shore (8-20, 4-12); 12. Morgan State (5-24, 3-13); 13. Delaware State (8-20, 3-13)

Local openers

Monday: Norfolk State vs. Maryland-Eastern Shore, 4 p.m.
Wednesday: Hampton vs. N.C. Central-Howard winner, noon

Complete tournament bracket

The favorite

Mighty Hampton just completed its second straight 16-0 conference regular season and has won 46 straight games against MEAC foes. But it wasn't as though the Lady Pirates just crushed all MEAC comers. OK, they crushed most MEAC comers. But Florida A&M fell by only three points, Coppin State by just eight. And in their regular-season finale, the Lady Pirates had to rally from three down in the final two minutes at home to overtake North Carolina A&T 54-51 in the teams' lone 2013-14 meeting. Is the field catching up? Perhaps, and if so, this may in part be Hampton's own fault. A case can be made that the Lady Pirates' dominance in recent years has raised the level of play league-wide. Still, one of the underrated hallmarks of these Lady Pirates under coach David Six has been an ability to make winning plays at the end of close games. We saw it earlier this season in gut-check victories over Drexel and Kansas State. We saw it again against A&T. So if the Lady Pirates are indeed challenged in this tournament, don't be surprised if we see it again.

In hot pursuit

North Carolina A&T will probably enter this tournament with the best RPI of any team in the field (the NCAA's latest numbers will be released Monday). Like Hampton, the Aggies are also capable of playing elite defense. Hampton is tied for second (with JMU and trailing only UConn) in Division I for fewest points allowed per possession, and A&T is fourth. And as we saw last week, the Aggies can give as good as they get when the two teams meet...Coppin State also hung with Hampton in one of the two meetings (losing 83-75) and pinned a 59-50 loss on A&T in Greensboro the only time those teams met...Florida A&M is more prone to the random head-scratching loss than the top three seeds but also earned a split against A&T and knocked off Coppin State in the regular-season finale.

What about Norfolk State?

They weren't exactly overwhelming victories - by seven and four points - but Norfolk State did win both meetings with first-round foe UMES this season. The Spartans should also have plenty of support in their opener, and not just because they'll be playing less than two miles from their campus. The NSU men's team will open men's tournament play against UMES right after the women's game (6:30 p.m.), so Norfolk State fan support should increase as the women's game goes on. In short, the Spartans are positioned well to advance to Thursday's noon quarterfinal against No. 3 Coppin State.

Players to watch

Two-way Florida State star Jasmine Grice leads Division I in steals (3.9 spg), ranks sixth in scoring (25.4 ppg) and has really turned it on down the stretch. Grice racked up at least four steals in each of her last seven games and is averaging 32.4 ppg over her last 10 with six games of at least 34 points. Not surprisingly, FAMU has gone 8-2 in that stretch. No doubt Grice is also looking to erase memories of her last appearance at Scope. A year ago, a hobbled Grice (back injury) attempted just three shots in the first half and finished with a measly 13 points in a 72-55 first-round loss to Norfolk State.

Hampton statsheet-stuffer Nicole Hamilton is not just the best shot-blocking point guard in Division I. She's the only shot-blocking point guard in Division I. Versatile Alyssa Bennett is a shutdown defender (a quiet Richard Sherman) who has really turned up her offensive game this season. And freshman guard Malia Tate-DeFreitas is the team's leading scorer and a six-time MEAC Rookie of the Week.

North Carolina A&T guard/forward Tracy King leads the Aggies in scoring, rebounding and leadership intangibles, while guard Christina Carter, a VCU transfer, leads the entire conference in assists. Redshirt sophomore center Aprill McRae, who also began her career at VCU, was a second-team All-MEAC selection.

Coppin State leading scorer Kyra Coleman is coming off a 29-point performance in a Senior Night victory over Howard. Coleman has 1,288 career points, sixth all-time in program history.

Senior Ezinne Kalu is the first player in Savannah State's Division I history (since 2002-03) to crack the 1,500-point barrier. Kalu is currently at 1,559 points for the Lady Tigers, whose 17 wins are the most in the team's D-I era. The next step is getting a postseason win - Savannah State is 0-3 in this tournament since joining the conference in 2011.

Bethune-Cookman redshirt freshman center Kailyn Williams, who stands 6-foot-4, leads the MEAC with 91 blocked shots.

Redshirt freshman guard Te'Shya Heslip leads Howard in scoring, defensive rebounding - at 5-foot-5 - assists, steals, field goal and free throw attempts and makes and minutes played. The Lady Bison have reached the last three MEAC finals but enter this tournament on a six-game losing streak.

Norfolk State forward Rachel Gordon is averaging 11.9 rebounds per game, nearly three more than any other MEAC player. The senior is also 30 points shy of 1,000 for her career. Gordon's teammate, guard Rae Corbo, needs 16 points to reach 1,000. Also keep an eye on rapidly-improving freshman forward Logan Powell, who has led the Spartans in scoring in three of their last four games and in rebounding twice over that span.

North Carolina Central redshirt senior Jessica Freeman knocked down a program-record 66 3-pointers this season as the Lady Eagles posted their best conference finish since re-joining the MEAC in 2011. NCCU assistant coach Ed Geth starred at Norfolk's Granby High and went on to play for North Carolina's 1993 national championship team.

Delaware State freshman guard Raven Bankston (21.0 ppg) is averaging 27.0 points on 46 percent shooting in her last 10 games and has four games of 30 points or more over that span. Her 567 points are the most in a single season in program history. Raven's twin sister Raine started five games before going down for the season with a knee injury.

Maryland-Eastern Shore guard Jessica Long, the team's leading scorer (14.4 ppg), averaged 24.0 points in two against against first-round opponent Norfolk State. By the way, this tournament is a homecoming of sorts for Lady Hawks coach Fred Batchelor, who lives in nearby Virginia Beach.

Morgan State junior guard Tracey Carrington averaged 20.7 points and also led the Bears in rebounding (5.7 rpg) and assists (53) while finishing second in steals (38).

Guard Kourtney Williams leads South Carolina State in scoring and dropped a career-high 30 points in a victory over Florida A&M in mid-January before being slowed by an ankle injury. Guard Cabriel Duren picked up the slack with 23 points in a Senior Day upset of Savannah State on Feb. 22.

Click here to visit the tournament's official website.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Today is T-Day for Emily; let's make sure she roars

March 3 is the day for Emily.


That's Emily Friar, captain of Team Emily, who we introduced you to in December.

T-Day is transplant day. Emily will receive a bone marrow transplant to end her battle with acute myeloid leukemia at the Duke University Medical Center. For a year and a half, AML has taken over Emily's body and dominated the Friars' life. Parents Kelly and Terry Friar are with Emily round-the-clock -- at least one parent, that is, as the other is with her younger sis, Caitlyn.

The Chesapeake family has been in Durham, N.C., for the past two weeks preparing for this day they hope will mean no more radiation and chemo for Emily, a smile-that-will-light-up-the-room kind of kid who likes New Direction, American Girl dolls, zoos and roller coasters.

"Pretty typical 9-year-old girl stuff," Kelly says.

Only typical for Emily since December 2012 has been IVs in her arm watching out the window while others play in the snow we so rarely get in Hampton Roads. Typical is having a cumbersome blinking machine follow you wherever you watch, and wearing a mask to avoid the germs so dangerous to a compromised immune system.

But today is T-Day, and we encourage all on Emily's team -- which includes LadySwish -- to get behind her, show support (wear blue/green, the team colors) and ROAR! In the past few weeks, Emily's Facebook page has exploded with well wishes from  Sarajevo, Japan, Bahrain, Mount Kilimanjaro. . .

We send her ours from Virginia, Emily. Prayers, support, hugs -- today is T-Day. At last.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

It's tournament time!

With the exception of Liberty, teams from Virginia haven't exactly played themselves into prime position as the first wave of conference tournaments kick off this week. But there's are reasons why they call this time of year March Madness. So here's hoping at least one of our lower-seeded hopefuls can get hot and go on a run.

Big South
Tuesday through Sunday, HTC Center, Conway, S.C.
2013 champion: Liberty
Seeds: 1. High Point; 2. Liberty; 3. Winthrop; 4. Campbell; 5. Gardner-Webb; 6. Coastal Carolina; 7. Presbyterian; 8. UNC Asheville; 9. Radford; 10. Longwood; 11. Charleston Southern
Of local interest:
Tuesday's first round
No. 8 UNC Asheville vs. No. 9 Radford, 11 a.m.
No. 7 Presbyterian vs. No. 10 Longwood, 1 p.m.
Thursday's quarterfinal
Presbyterian-Longwood winner vs. No. 2 Liberty, 6 p.m.

Radford and UNC Asheville have the distinction of playing in the very first women's basketball conference tournament game in the country, which means the loser will be the first D-I team in America to pack up its gear for the season. Fortunately this is a good matchup for Radford (7-22) as the Highlanders got one of their five conference wins against UNC Asheville and led by three with less than four minutes remaining before faltering in the teams' other meeting. A key will be the battle of the boards - UNC Asheville is one of the few teams the undersized Highlanders can outrebound. If Radford can take care of the glass - and our girl Ayana Avery gets hot - we like the Highlanders' chances of setting up a quarterfinal date with top-seeded High Point.

Disappointing Longwood (8-21) staggers into this tournament having lost five of its last six. They did split with Presbyterian during the regular season, though, and since the Blue Hose aren't going to overwhelm anyone with offense, the Lancers should have opportunities to advance. Still, we've never been quite sure what to expect for the 2013-14 Lancers. We like their talent, and we know they've had injuries. But for some reason, the sum of this team has turned out to be less than the individual parts would suggest. That said, Longwood was a surprise tournament finalist a year ago. So who knows? Maybe the Lancers can get on another roll.

Finally, for a while there we thought Liberty, which has won 15 of the last 17 Big South titles, might finally be vulnerable. Then the Lady Flames closed the regular season on a five-game winning streak, using some devastating 3-point shooting to go with their usual low-point dominance. We still think this is the field's best chance to steal a title before Liberty seizes full control of this conference again. But as they proven the last couple of weeks, these Lady Flames ain't giving up the crown easily.

Big South Tournament bracket
Atlantic 10
Wednesday through Sunday, Richmond Coliseum
2013 champion: St. Joseph's
Seeds: 1. Dayton; 2. St. Bonaventure; 3. Fordham; 4. George Washington; 5. St. Joseph's; 6. Duquesne; 7. La Salle; 8. VCU; 9. Richmond; 10. Saint Louis; 11. Rhode Island; 12. George Mason; 13. UMass (top four seeds earn byes; the No. 12 and 13 seeds face off in a play-in game)
Of local interest:
Wednesday's play-in game
No. 12 George Mason vs. No. 13 UMass, 7 p.m.
Thursday's first round
No. 8 VCU vs. No. 9 Richmond, noon

It figures that the two Richmond schools would meet each other in the debut game of the tournament's three-year run in Richmond (although if the league had its way, we're sure this game wouldn't be played at noon on a weekday). Richmond beat VCU once and almost did it twice, as Gen Okoro's potential game-winning putback came a split-second after the final buzzer and VCU held on 63-62 in the teams' first meeting. The Spiders have been hammered by injuries but seemingly have gotten tougher with each blow. As for VCU, while a 9-7 conference record represents tremendous progress from last season, it's actually a bit of a disappointment given that the Rams were at one point 2-0 in the league and riding a 13-game winning streak. That the Rams weren't able to run through the conference isn't terribly surprising, though. Their uptempo "Fury" style demands superior conditioning, mentally and physically. Very few freshmen are prepared to go this hard this long, and the Rams are loaded with freshmen. Fortunately for their tournament hopes, the Rams haven't played since Feb. 26 so Richmond should be braced for full-fledged Fury. Win or lose, VCU (21-8) will probably be invited to the WNIT. Richmond needs two tournament victories to guarantee finishing at .500 or better, one of the criteria for getting a WNIT at-large bid.

George Mason's Patriots have just one conference win, but it was an emphatic 101-73 beatdown of the same UMass bunch they'll meet for the right to get into this tournament's main draw. If they can do anything close to this again, they'll advance to meet No. 5 St. Joseph's on Thursday at 2:30 p.m.

Atlantic 10 tournament bracket

Wednesday through Sunday, Greensboro Coliseum
2013 champion: Duke
Seeds: 1. Notre Dame; 2. Duke; 3. Maryland; 4. N.C. State; 5. Syracuse; 6. North Carolina; 7. Georgia Tech; 8. Miami; 9. Florida State; 10. Virginia; 11. Wake Forest; 12. Virginia Tech; 13. Clemson; 14. Pittsburgh; 15. Boston College (top four seeds receive double-byes; seeds 5-9 earn byes).
Of local interest:
Wednesday's first round
No. 12 Virginia Tech vs. No. 13 Clemson, 1 p.m.
No. 10 Virginia vs. No. 15 Boston College, 3:30 p.m.

Talk about ideal matchups. On Thursday, Virginia Tech beat Clemson by 26 points. Not saying this one will come that easily, but the Hokies (14-15) really should win this rematch. Assuming they do, they would then face No. 5 Syracuse, a team that hammered the visiting Hokies by 25 points. If Tech can win that one, the Hokies would guarantee finishing with no worse than a .500 overall record and would be WNIT-eligible. So that's the deal - two Tech wins and the Hokies will almost certainly play in another postseason tournament. One or no wins and the season is over. But hey, no pressure.

As for Virginia, we're not sure what happens to the Cavaliers once February hits. Last season, Virginia went 1-8 after February 1. To be fair, that team was ravaged by injuries. But this year, a relatively healthy Cavaliers team has gone 2-6 since the second month of the year started and was flat-out crushed over the final 20 minutes of Thursday's Senior Night game against Miami and Sunday's regular-season finale at Florida State. Frankly, it's a mystery why this team is finishing so poorly. Virginia's February slide includes a 69-65 loss at the same Boston College team they'll open with here. On paper there's no reason why Virginia can't reverse that outcome, maybe emphatically. But to do so they'll need to find and sustain a level of play we haven't seen from these guys in weeks.

In terms of WNIT prospects, with a 13-16 overall record Virginia would have to win four ACC Tournament games - in other words, reach the final - to become eligible. And heck, if they get that far, they might as well just go ahead and win the ACC and go to the NCAAs, right?

But first, Boston College.

ACC Tournament bracket

Next week:

March 10-15, Scope, Norfolk
2013 champion: Hampton

Conference USA
March 11-15, Memorial Gym, El Paso, Texas (first three rounds); Haskins Center, El Paso, Texas (semifinals and final)
2013 champion: Tulsa

March 13-15, Show Place Arena, Upper Marlboro, Md.
2013 champion: Delaware