Tuesday, November 29, 2016

After tough start, Richmond rebounds in style

Our two-word breakdown of Spiders basketball so far:

Preseason: Hmmm... Richmond?

One week in: Poor Richmond.

Two weeks in: Hey, Richmond!

It's been that wild of a ride so far for the resilient Spiders, who answered a discouraging opening seven days with a tournament title to cap a satisfying three-game winning streak.

Spiders coach Michael Shafer cautioned that his team still has a long way to go. A week ago, though, Richmond seemed to be light years away from its goals when, after tough losses to Columbia and Virginia, the Spiders got absolutely waylaid by William and Mary 67-39.

Now, we know William and Mary is a tough team. But...39 points?

"The next morning, I walked into the locker room, sat down and told the players, 'This is all on me,' " Shafer recalled. "And then we just talked about playing together. No screaming, no come-to-Jesus speech. Just an open, candid conversation about how we could improve."

As one might expect, the discussion touched on some common, albeit often elusive themes, such as embracing roles and no one player trying to be Supergirl (except for Janelle Hubbard, who at times IS Supergirl). But it also honed in on one of the specific challenges of these Spiders, who combine three legitimate backcourt stars in Hubbard, Lauren Tolson and Micaela Parson with a cadre of still-developing forwards. In addition to playing well themselves, part of the guards' responsibility, Shafer said, is to help make sure the frontcourt guys get off, too.

"We need to appreciate and value our forwards," Shafer said.

Flashes of improvement  were evident on Nov. 20 when the Spiders finally broke into the win column with a 55-46 win over Appalachian State. But it wasn't until the the second half of Richmond's next game, against Florida A&M, where the sustained level of execution was to the point where the coach could think to himself, "By Jove, I think they've got it!"

The Spiders went on to race past the Rattlers 64-51 Friday in the opener the Florida Atlantic Thanksgiving Tournament. And on Saturday, they claimed the title with a 77-67 triumph over the host FAU.

Not surprisingly, Hubbard was sensational in the tournament, which she capped by dropping 30 on FAU en route to claiming MVP honors. But every Spider nailed her part in this tourney, which featured:

- A career-high 15-point explosion from forward Karleigh Wike (way to pad your part, Karleigh);

- A welcome Wiseman sighting - 9 points and 8 rebounds (both season highs) in the title game from freshman forward Regan Wiseman.

- A breakout, season-high 17 point night from Tolson;

- A Rodmanesque 12-rebound effort from the 5-8 Parson (huh?);

- 8.5 ppg over the two games from freshman forward Jaide Hinds-Clarke.

And on it went. Again, Shafer said there's still plenty of work to be done. But actually winning while you work sure is a lot more fun, isn't it?

Speaking of struggling, next up for Richmond, at Saturday's Navy Classic in Annapolis, Md., is retooling Liberty (0-4). The Lady Flames, who are breaking in virtually an entirely new cast of characters, have experienced the expected getting-to-know-each-other kinks in the early going.

That said, consider this trend:

First game - Liberty loses by 60

Second game - Liberty loses by 14

Third game - Liberty loses by 9

Fourth game - Liberty loses by 2, on a shot at the buzzer.

Be careful Spiders, 'cause these guys are knocking on the door.

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