Monday, December 15, 2014

The few, the proud, the Lady Pirates

We liken playing for Hampton coach David Six to joining the Marines - not everyone can handle the demands, but those who can wind up part of something special.

Take the Lady Pirates' 2014-15 non-conference schedule...please. I mean, it's brutal. And don't just take our word for it. According to official NCAA accounting, so far it's been the toughest Division I non-conference slate in the country.

And guess what? It's about to get even tougher.

On Wednesday, the Lady Pirates (3-5) will host the No. 1 team in the nation, South Carolina (9-0). Three days later they'll travel to JMU, a Top-25 team to just about everyone that doesn't have a poll vote. And two days after that they'll visit No. 25 DePaul, which last week came within two missed free throws in the final seconds of knocking off Notre Dame.

Oh, and the Lady Pirates' non-conference finale will be on Jan. 5 against Princeton, which is 10-0 now and a pretty good bet to be 15-0 by the time the Tigers show up in Hampton.

Those four games spread out over the nearly two-month non-conference window would be plenty tough enough. That they come on top of the seven-game gauntlet Hampton's already run makes the whole thing one of the more challenging schedules we've seen in years.

Consider that the seven teams Hampton has played so far - Northwestern, Quinnipiac, Kansas State, Lehigh, Washington State, Penn and Richmond - are a combined 42-12. Northwestern and Lehigh are still undefeated. The "weakest" team in the bunch might be Richmond (4-4), which just knocked off Wake Forest.

Virtually every team lines up 1-3 games they're pretty sure they'll win, even if they have to reach outside of Division I to do so. Evidently that memo never reached Six's desk, as there's nothing close to a soft touch on Hampton's schedule.

Adding to the degree of difficulty is the fact that six of the seven games were on the road, with two of those on consecutive nights at Penn and at Richmond. Remarkably, Hampton won both and was the fresher team in the second half each time.

Now Six didn't set that up on purpose; he said a tournament Hampton had entered got canceled. But he didn't shy away from the challenge, either. And the fact the Lady Pirates were able to sweep both ends of that unique doubleheader suggests that for this particular program, such kamikaze scheduling isn't just brutal, but also brutally effective.

You see, there's a method behind Six's scheduling madness, a whatever-doesn't-kill-us-makes-us-stronger factor that no doubt has helped fuel five-time MEAC champion Hampton's Division I-best 50-game winning streak against conference foes. Because while this year's schedule might be a bit extreme, Hampton has been seeking out non-conference challenges - and winning their share of them - ever since Six took over.

Two years ago, for example, the Lady Pirates beat Mississippi State and LSU, lost to DePaul by one point and South Carolina by 11.

Because of heavy graduation losses and several players adapting to new roles, this year's HU edition was probably less-equipped than most Hampton squads for such sink-or-swim scheduling. So it wasn't exactly shocking when the Lady Pirates sank like a stone in blowout season-opening losses at Northwestern (by 26 points), at Quinnipiac (by 28) and at Kansas State (by 20).

But Six said he finally began recognizing his own team, particularly defensively, in a 14-point loss to Washington State, a game the Lady Pirates tied up midway through the second half before Cougars star Tia Presley (36 points) went nuts. The next time out, the Lady Pirates were giving Lehigh what-for in the second half until foul trouble caught up with them.

Finally, vintage Hampton surfaced on Dec. 5 at Penn, where the Lady Pirates held the Quakers to just 12 second-half points. The following night, they limited Richmond to 36-percent shooting in the second half and turned a one-point halftime deficit into an 11-point win.

Two nights later, the Lady Pirates returned home and spanked conference foe Morgan State by 20 for their third victory in four nights (in three different cities).

Hampton will take this three-game winning streak, along with fresh legs and renewed confidence into battle Wednesday. Of course, they'll need a lot more than confidence to even stay connected to Dawn Staley's Gamecocks. For while the Lady Pirates are just finding their defensive chops, South Carolina has been employing next-level defense all season. Opponents are shooting just 33.1 percent against the Gamecocks, and six of their last eight opponents have scored 50 points or fewer. Two weeks ago, North Carolina Central, Hampton's MEAC comrade, produced only 26.

Of course, North Carolina Central is no Hampton.

Besides, it's not like these guys haven't seen tough teams before.

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