Kirby Burkholder, JMU
It was the run-up to the 2011-12 season, and JMU coach Kenny Brooks was talking about which Dukes would fill the considerable offensive void created by the departure of Dawn Evans. He ticked off two or three names, then added, "There's also Kirby Burkholder. She's really improved a lot."
At the time, we admired Brooks for finding a way to mention all of his players in the preseason preview. We just weren't sure how seriously to take this. Burkholder? The one who scored 31 points her entire freshman year? Sure she's gotten better - how could she not? But you honestly want us to believe this kid's going to replace Dawn Evans?
Well, this is why JMU pays Brooks all that money. For while no one can truly replace a player as uniquely gifted as Evans, Burkholder gradually carved out her own distinct Dukes legend. Burkholder's brilliance was rooted in her remarkable ability to dramatically improve each year she was on campus. The 6-foot forward went from her 31-point freshman season to a third-team All-Colonial Athletic Association pick. Her junior year, she was first-team All-CAA. And in 2013-14, Burkholder earned conference player of the year honors while spearheading JMU's Shermanesque run through the CAA. She then notched 28 points and 18 rebounds as the Dukes knocked off Gonzaga to bag the program's first NCAA tournament win since 1991.
Her production - Burkholder led the Dukes in points, rebounds, steals and minutes played - and leadership skills make her a clear choice as the LadySwish Player of the Year.
It's also made us realize we ought to pay much more attention to who Brooks tells us about this preseason.
Kirby Burkholder, Sr., JMU
- CAA Player of the Year. Averaged team-leading 18.6 ppg, 8.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals. Shot 89.3 percent from the free-throw line and made her last 30 FTs as a collegian.
Alyssa Bennett, Sr. Hampton
- Two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year and the most outstanding player at the 2014 MEAC Tournament. Averaged 17.9 points and 9.4 rebounds.
Uju Ugoka, Sr., Virginia Tech
- Set program records with 16 double-doubles and 213 field goals. Led Tech in scoring (18.4 ppg) and rebounding (9.6 rpg). Earned second-team All-ACC honors and was also named to the league's All-Academic team.
Shae Kelley, Sr., Old Dominion
- Became just the fifth Lady Monarch to scored 1,000 points in her first two seasons at ODU. Averaged team-leading totals of 17.8 points and 9.7 rebounds and also paced ODU in blocked shots and steals . A first-team All-Conference USA selection.
Robyn Parks, VCU
- Led the Atlantic 10 in scoring (21.5 ppg) for the second straight year and ended her career ranked in the Top 10 of the program's all-time lists in points (sixth), free throws (third), rebounding (seventh), steals (10th), double-doubles (fifth) and games played (second). A first-team All-Atlantic 10 pick.
Nicole Hamilton, Hampton: Fabulous shot blocker and a first-team all-MEAC selection who ends her career with 1,158 points.
Nikki Newman, James Madison: The two-time CAA Defensive Player of the Year has the amazing ability to impact every possession on both ends of the floor.
Rachel Gordon, Norfolk State: The MEAC's top rebounder was NSU's first conference first-teamer since the 2001-02 season.
Ashley Rininger, Liberty: First-team all Big South, the sophomore collected 16 double-doubles, ranking second in the conference in field-goal percentage.
Ataira Franklin, Virginia: Finishes her Cavalier career with 1,619 points, ranking her 11th.
Kenny Brooks, JMU
No, the Dukes didn't win an NCAA title. But in just about every other aspect - 29 victories, a long-awaited NCAA triumph, local stars leading the way, an all-alum staff, record-setting crowd on Senior Night - 2013-14 was about as close as it gets to a dream season.
Freshman of the Year
Malia Tate-DeFreitas, Hampton
Freshmen are typically seen but not heard from at Hampton. But coach David Six tossed the precocious Tate-DeFreitas into the middle of a veteran cast and gave her the green light. Tate-DeFreitas responded by being the leading scorer on yet another MEAC championship squad.
Marlena Tremba, William & Mary: The CAA Rookie of the Year scored in double figures 22 times, making 14 starts.
Olivia Healy, Richmond: Before suffering a season-ending knee injury vs. St. Louis, the 5-11 guard averaged 12.3 ppg and boasted a .419 FG percentage.
Isis Thorpe, VCU: Started 16 games and averaged 12.2 ppg with big nights against Ohio State (20 points) and St. Bonaventure (19 points).
Keira Robinson, VCU: Formidable point guard handed out 200 assists and averaged 11.4 ppg while starting all but one game.
Finally, there were a host of memorable games over the course of the 2013-14 season. Here are a few of our favorites:
Longwood 67, Xavier 64:
The idea of the Lancers knocking off a Big East team, even a fuzzy-cheeked conference newcomer like Xavier, would have been far-fetched throughout most of Longwood's Division I history. But that was before the Lancers bagged what the school proudly proclaimed as the biggest win in program history. Daeisha Brown led the way with 26 points, six rebounds and five assists, and Heather Tobeck was the late-game heroine after splashing the go-ahead 3-pointer with 30 seconds left. "I knew it was good the moment it left her hand," Lancers coach Bill Reinson would say later. Alas, the season went south for the Lancers after this, but as this game proved, the campaign wasn't without a few defining moments.
William and Mary 96, UMass 88 (OT)
The Tribe's first victory of the season was truly a team effort as Jazmen Boone (24 points), Kyla Kerstetter (18), Marlena Tremba (15), Kaitlyn Mathieu (14) and Anna Kestler (12) all scored in double figures. But for us, the game's gold star belonged to freshman Latrice Hunter, who calmly sank two free throws with four seconds left to force overtime. Hunter had missed two free throws with one second left in the first half and was 0-for-3 when she stepped to the line at the end of regulation. For the game, the Tribe went 25 of 28 from the line, with Hunter accounting for the only misses. But when she absolutely, positively had to get it done, Hunter was money.
Virginia Tech 72, Michigan State 66
A year earlier, the Hokies scored just 29 points the entire game in a 28-point loss to the Spartans, but a revamped Tech lit up the scoreboard (relatively speaking) in the rematch as Uju Ugoka, Vanessa Panousis, Hannah Young and Monet Tellier took turns piling up the points in a wild game that saw the Hokies get a big lead, lose it, get another big lead, lose it again, then fashion a 10-1 run to finally close the Spartans out. After this one, we were sure we were watching two NCAA tournament teams. Unfortunately, only Michigan State would qualify for the big show.
VCU 71, Duquesne 68
Robyn Parks flat-out went off in the second half, scoring 22 of her 31 points and almost singlehandedly rallying the Rams (14-1) to their school-record 13th straight victory. To be fair, most of the victories during the streak came at the expense of rebuilding teams. So for many, this victory was the first true indication that these Rams were for real.
Norfolk State 73, UMES 66
The Spartans hadn't won a true road game since the end of the 2011-12 season, so it was pleasantly surprising to see them march into Princess Anne, Md., and handle the Lady Hawks. Rae Corbo led the way with 20 points, and rebounding machine Rachel Gordon added 19 while snatching 16 boards. The Spartans wound up finishing MEAC play with a better record in other teams' buildings (5-3) than they had in their own (3-5).
Liberty 77, Winthrop 70 (OT)
It would wind up being Winthrop's year in the Big South, but the Lady Flames had final say in this one, rallying from 15 down in the first half, then surviving a buzzer-beater to tie at the end of regulation to pull away in OT. Ashley Rininger (20 points, 14 rebounds), Reagan Miller (17 points, all after halftime) and Mickayla Sanders (17 points) scored 12 of Liberty's 15 points in the extra period.
Virginia 86, Maryland 72
The 6th-ranked Terrapins came in winners of 14 straight but were run out of John Paul Jones Arena by the seemingly resurgent Cavaliers, who shot 50 percent from the field and got 24 points from Kelsey Wolfe and 19 apiece from Ataira Franklin and Faith Randolph. The fact that it was the final Virginia-Maryland showdown before the Terps depart for the Big Ten made the victory that much sweeter. Of course, the Cavs were unable to follow up on this success, while Maryland danced its way to the Final Four. But on this night, the Cavaliers looked like the real ACC heavyweights.
High Point 72, Radford 63
Talk about being dialed in. Highlanders sophomore Ayana Avery sank eight 3-pointers, including all seven she launched in the second half to help Radford make a game of it. "My teammates were finding me, and once you make two or three, your confidence grows," Avery said. The game kicked off a four-game stretch when Avery hit 23 3-pointers and shot percent 56 percent from distance. For the season, Avery connected on a school-record 95 treys.
Old Dominion 65, Marshall 52
Down by 10 with 3:50 remaining, ODU appeared headed for an embarrassing home loss to Conference USA's last-place team. But that's when the Lady Monarchs climbed off the deck with a fury, using voracious offensive rebounding, lockdown defense and an unlikely 3-pointer by Shae Kelley to force overtime. The ODU assault continued in the extra period, and what looked to be a certain defeat turned into a comfortable victory. The Lady Monarchs wound up scoring 27 of the game's final 31 points.
Richmond 78, Fordham 77 (2OT)
The resiliency of the Spiders was on full display against the eventual Atlantic 10 tournament champions. Kristina King's jumper with 11 seconds left in regulation tied things at 61 and forced overtime. King's 3-pointer with 15 tics left in OT made it 71-71 and prompted another extra period. And finally, freshman Janelle Hubbard's jumper with seven seconds left was the game-winner. King and the precocious Hubbard each finished with 29 points for the Spiders, who proved that even with their injury-depleted roster they could compete with - and beat - the A-10's best.
George Mason 101, UMass 73
The Patriots took out a season's worth of frustration on UMass, putting up NBA numbers and finishing with their first triple-digit score since 1993. Janaa Pickard (25 points), Taylor Brown (25) and Sandra Ngoie (23) led the way as their Patriots notched their first victory of 2014. Mason also topped UMass in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
Hampton 50, Coppin State 47
How do you win a game shooting just 26 percent? If you're Hampton, you do it by holding your opponent to 25 percent. The Lady Pirates followed this formula in the MEAC tournament final, once again relying on elite defense to bail them out and cement their fifth straight conference tournament crown. Hampton also got a huge effort from senior guard Nicole Hamilton, who struggled mightily in the Lady Pirates' first two tournament game but scored 20 points and orchestrated most of the key offensive plays down the stretch in the final. The victory was Hampton's 49th straight against MEAC opponents, the longest active such streak in Division I.
JMU 72, Gonzaga 63
We saved the best for last. Not only was this the Dukes' first NCAA tournament victory since 1991, but it was the first NCAA triumph by any Virginia D-I program since 2009. The Dukes won it with defense, holding Gonzaga's offense in check until unleashing their own weapons down the stretch. Meanwhile, Burkholder (28 points, 18 rebounds) conducted a clinic on how to be the best player on the floor despite making just 4 of 17 shots.