Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Radford continues to make a statement in Big South

Radford is sharing at least a piece of the Big South regular-season title, assured after the Highlanders squeaked by Campbell on Monday night, and the credit goes to --- us?

Well, truth be told, we did tout coach Mike McGuire as the right man for the job back when he was hired in April 2013.

But we're giving all credit to McGuire, his staff and the Highlanders for making Radford (22-6) a contender in a league that seemingly only belonged to Liberty when he got the job.

First, a look at what this Radford team, with one regular-season game remaining, has accomplished thus far:
  • Radford is the top seed in the Big South Tournament for the first time since the 1991-92 season;
  • The Highlanders share at least a part of the regular-season title (we said that already, but it bears repeating again); a win at High Point on Saturday gives them the title outright
  • Radford finished unscathed at 13-0 in its own Dedmon Center, a Highlander first in the Division I era
  • The Highlanders have held nine opponents to fewer than 50 points
A year ago, the Highlanders were banged up, minus redshirt freshman Jen Falconer and sophomore guards Brittany Allen and Claudia Quevado, all lost for the season to ACL tears. Freshman Destinee Walker averaged 3.3 ppg, missing the first 10 games with a knee injury.

We thought McGuire did a lot with a little then as the Highlanders took a no-excuses approach to finishing 18-13, ending their season in the quarterfinals of the Big South tournament.

Move ahead to 2016-17, and the 5-11 Walker is the team's leading scorer, testament to her work ethic and her teammates for giving her the confidence she needed to have a breakout season, McGuire said. Walker, averaging 14.3 ppg and 2.3 apg, shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc and 48 percent from the field.

"Destinee has far exceeded anybody's expectations," McGuire said. "She wasn't a competitive kid before this season. She was sort of a happy-go-lucky kid who played basketball."

Walker moved the needle at UNC Greensboro with a 20-point, 10-rebound night and then again at Appalachian State behind 22 points, seven of those in the final 51 seconds, and 11 boards to lead Radford to a 54-51 victory. Twice the Big South Player of the Week, Walker benefits from height and length in addition to a solid mid range game and reliable outside shooting (48 percent from 3). She has 22 double-doubles on the season.

"When we recruited her, everything as far as scoring was off the dribble," McGuire said. "Now she can come off screens and catch and shoot the 3."

Also worthy of attention: Jayda, Worthy that is.

"If there's somebody who's had the most impact on both ends of the floor, it's Jayda," McGuire said. "She's become more of an offensive threat if you look at her numbers (11.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and field-goal percentage (.585). There's several possessions through a game where she's guarding four players because she's so smart. When she's not on the floor, we look and feel differently."

Falconer has also rebounded from the injury well and Khiana Johnson, just a freshman, is in the starting lineup thanks to her 7.7 ppg. Janayla White, a preseason Big South first-teamer, has been a steady presence (8.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg).

As good as they've been, finding consistent offense remains a problem. Look to the two 49-48 games this season to illustrate that. The Highlanders lost at Liberty on Feb. 7 by that score after a horrible first half that saw them rack up more turnovers than field goals.

On Monday, they outlasted Campbell, but were outdone in the fourth quarter 19-9. Lazy offensive stretches can doom a team in the postseason.

"We need to develop more of a killer instinct," McGuire said.

The coach who grew up in Roanoke can't exactly tell you he saw this type of season happening just yet. Maybe next year, he thought? We're not looking there yet, but with only one player graduating (Rachael Ross), next year's Highlanders aren't going to be slouches, either.

"It's very gratifying to watch this group put in the work and the time. They really didn't have anything but experience to learn from We've had some great moments. We've had some tough lessons."

And yes, the buzz words have been said -- NCAA Tournament, that is.

Radford hasn't been there since 1996. Isn't it about time to end a 21-year drought?

Sizing up the Atlantic 10 tournament

We're fielding questions about the Atlantic 10 tournament. But don't expect to find out which team is going to win it all. You see, the trick to doing this type of story is to only raise questions for which you already know the answer. And since we have no idea who will ultimately cut down the nets, we ain't posing that question.

With that out of the way, here's what we have a better read on:

Will multiple Atlantic 10 teams advance to the NCAA Tournament?

At this point, it seems unlikely. The A-10 sent three teams to the NCAA in seven of the last 10 years and has had at least two in 22 of the 23 seasons since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1994 (2001-02 was the exception). But this year, the resumes of A-10 teams are light on quality wins and pockmarked with damaging defeats. The A-10's conference RPI is 12th; a year ago, when the league had three NCAA teams, the A-10 ranked eighth. The loser of a final featuring Dayton (RPI 45) and George Washington (47) could enter the at-large discussion. Barring that, though, this looks like the rare year the Atlantic 10 is a one-bid league.

Didn't this tournament already begin?

Yes, the Atlantic 10 christened a new format and the 32-event Division I conference tournament season Saturday and Sunday with six first round games; while top seeds Dayton and George Washington rested, seeds 3-8 hosted seeds 9-14. The home teams went 6-for-6, so the top eight seeds are still in play as the event settles in at the Richmond Coliseum. We're not sure how much tournament buzz this new format generated, and none of the games drew particularly well (Fordham had the high attendance at 890 and four the games played out before crowds of less than 575). Collectively, however, 3,652 fans took in first-round action of the league tournament. And since the home teams all won, most of them went home happy.

What's next in the tournament?

Friday's quarterfinal matchups:

No. 8 VCU (16-14, RPI 140) vs. No. 1 Dayton (19-9, RPI 45), 11 a.m.
     - More on this game below.

No. 4 Saint Louis (23-7, RPI 104) vs. No. 5 Fordham (21-10, RPI 117), 2 p.m.
     - Fordham lost by 24 at Saint Louis in the lone regular season meeting. Game was played before more than 6,000 Billikens fans. Not sure how many of them are traveling to Richmond.

No. 2 George Washington (20-8, RPI 47) vs. No. 7 Duquesne (16-14, RPI 137), 4:30 p.m.
     - These two teams met in the 2016 A-10 final (GW won 63-60). Not sure what to make of this year's two-game set - George Washington won by 35 at Duquesne and Duquesne won by 10 at George Washington.

No. 3 St. Joseph's (16-13, RPI 108) vs. No. 6 La Salle (17-12, RPI 166), 7 p.m.
     - Third matchup for these longtime Big 5 rivals. The Hawks swept both previous meetings and are 44-10 lifetime against the Explorers.

For a complete rundown of the event, visit the A-10's tournament page.

What are VCU's chances?

The eighth-seeded Rams' roller-coaster season is currently on an upswing as Sunday's 72-64 decision over No. 9 Richmond was their third straight win. But their challenge ahead is daunting, and not just because Dayton is the top seed. When the teams met in the regular season, Dayton's superior size inside canceled out the Rams' preferred style of attacking the rim. VCU shot a season-low 26.7 percent and lost by 20 at home. The Rams will almost certainly shoot better in Wednesday's rematch. Also, many of these players were on the VCU team that won at Dayton in January, 2016. In short, anything's possible, particularly in a win-or-go-home situation for a team with six seniors. Make no mistake, though - this is in no way a good matchup for VCU.

Who are the players to watch?

Rather than take our word for it, check out the All-Atlantic 10 teams and major award winners released Tuesday. And while they're no longer involved in these proceedings, special shoutouts to Richmond's Janelle Hubbard, who is now a three-time All-Atlantic 10 honoree, George Mason's Kara Wright, a third-team All-A-10 pick, George Mason all-rookie team selection Jacy Bolton and Richmond freshman all-rookie league forward Jaide Hinds-Clarke.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Everything you didn't know about Monacan star and UConn-bound Megan Walker

In addition to Mom and Dad and bro Jonathan, Megan Walker had a host of aunts and extended family celebrating her Senior Night at Monacan High on Tuesday night. (Those folks, no doubt, won't be shy about visiting her in Storrs, Conn., as she is UConn-bound in the fall.)

You already know the lowdown on Walker the player -- but do you know who's her favorite on "Gray's Anatomy"? Or the most bizarre offer she got during her recruiting days? How will she get by up north without Daz, her pup, who is no Husky?

Find out everything you didn't know about Megan, who was gracious enough to sit down for a video chat with LadySwish

Meet Richmond-bound Alex Parson (Micaela's sis!)

We loved getting to know Richmond-bound Alex Parson (her sis, Micaela, is already a Spider), on Senior Night at Monacan High. Just like her UConn-bound teammate, Megan Walker, Alex is a huge Gray's Anatomy buff (Olivia Pope, too) and loves her pugs. Check out our video chat with her!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

VCU's Camille Calhoun talks about enduring an ACL tear again

"Not again. Not again. Not again."

Lying on the Siegel Center floor, Camille Calhoun kept repeating the words. The VCU senior guard knew from the moment her knee didn't move with her body that this was indeed "again."

Another ACL tear to her left knee. She had played all of one whole game since the last ACL tear.

The first time, she felt her knee buckle while going up for a layup against Arizona State on Dec. 5, 2015, the seventh game of the Rams' season. As bad as it hurt, she wasn't sure it was an ACL as she had never had that type of injury before.

But there was a pop. "I was just in so much pain," she recalled.

The ensuing rehab, she said, was harder than she expected.

"A lot more went into it when I thought," she said. "I lived on the underwater treadmill for six months."

She couldn't wait to play in 2016 -- especially against the coach that recruited her to VCU, Marlene Stollings. Now with Minnesota, Stollings brought her Gophers to the Siegel Center for the second game of this season on Nov. 15 when Calhoun's knee gave way again.

This time she was on defense, sliding one way. Her knee didn't cooperate.

"I didn't feel an initial pop, but I knew it was an ACL," she said.

Initial tests were inconclusive, but ultimately they confirmed "again." Calhoun had surgery Dec. 27 and is going through the same process she went through last year.

"It sucked because I just come back," she said. "I just did this. Now I have to do it all over again."

As crushing as a second ACL is, Calhoun knows what to expect throughout her rehab and is fully aware of the milestones she needs to hit. Positivity is important. So is developing outside interests. Calhoun now has time to volunteer more; her pet causes include the SPCA and a Richmond homeless shelter.

She's also completed internships, one with emergency management for VCU Police and another with Kings Dominion security (her favorite ride is the Intimidator, btw, which would be the steel rollercoaster).

This time, the 6-foot Calhoun is more attune to her weight. She has also learned that extra pounds aren't a good idea. She put too many on the first time. "I put on a good 30 pounds, and so far I've lost 21 of those," she said. "I make sure I'm eating right. My left knee can't handle all that weight."

Calhoun didn't take part in the Rams' senior night last week. Already graduated, she's aiming for a master's in homeland security and emergency preparedness with an eye toward working for federal law enforcement.

She wants to play again. She's planning on it.

"I can't go out like this," she said. "Freshman year I struggled the entire way through. By sophomore year I started to pick up a bit and thought, 'Now I can play my brand of basketball.' Junior year my mentality was, 'My year.' I didn't realize it was my year to sit down. That's why I definitely want to play.

"I'm looking to come back better than ever. I've tried to stay positive. What else can you really do?"

Friday, February 3, 2017

JMU's O'Regan: right coach for the job

Two-thirds of the way through the 2016-17 season, it looks like the "people's choice" was the right choice.

Within minutes after news began circulating about Kenny Brooks' resignation as JMU's women's basketball coach last March, momentum started building within JMU Nation for Dukes associate head coach Sean O'Regan to fill the vacancy. For what it's worth, we thought it was a pretty good idea, too.
If only all of our thoughts turned out this well.

There's a temptation is to look at the Dukes' record - 14-6, 7-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association - shrug and say, "typical JMU." In fact, what's unfolded in Harrisonburg is actually an expert rebuilding job cleverly disguised as typical JMU.

Consider that these Dukes are without the 2016 CAA Player of the Year (Jazmon Gwathmey), the first-team all-league point guard (Muff Mickens) and the team's second-leading scorer (Ashley Perez). Right before the 2016-17 season began, center Kayla Cooper-Williams, who made the league's all-defensive and all-rookie teams last season, went down with a season-ending knee injury. And eight games into the campaign, O'Regan revealed that forward Da'Lishia Griffin, the CAA's leading rebounder a year ago, had left the team.

The massive turnover produced one of our favorite by-the-numbers stats:

0 - Points supplied by current JMU players in the Dukes' 60-46 victory over Drexel in the 2016 CAA tournament championship game.

Now, O'Regan isn't the first coach to have to replace five starters. But how many have had to replace five studs? In their first year in command? The challenge is enough to make a guy pull his hair out. No, wait....

Scratch that bit about hair. The point is, this team had to undergo a near-complete overhaul. Also, we couldn't help but wonder, how well would the players respond to O'Regan going from popular assistant to the man who now must occasionally crack the whip? And what about the challenges of replacing a superstar coach like Brooks? Wouldn't it be better to be the coach who replaced the coach who replaced Brooks?

In short, there were all sorts of legitimate excuses in place for a season (or two) full of getting-to-know-each-other struggles. Led by O'Regan, the Dukes have navigated around them all while branding themselves serious players for a fourth straight conference tournament title in a deeper-than-usual CAA.

Granted, it helps to have star guard Precious Hall, who missed last season with a knee injury, not only healthy but producing at an All-American level. But everyone else is either adjusting to a more significant role (Tasia Butler, Aneah Young, Logan Reynolds, Hailee Barron, Savannah Felgemacher), to playing the JMU way (Stetson transfer Amber Porter) or simply to college life, period (freshmen Kamiah Smalls, Lexie Barrier, Devon Merritt).

There's plenty of talent there, for sure. But to see it blending together this effectively this quickly is a credit to O'Regan, assistants Bridgette Mitchell, Ian Caskill (Cox High!), Ashlee McGee and the rest of the women's basketball brain trust. Evidently, O'Regan is as good as assembling a team around him as he is as guiding the team in front of them.

So, yeah, O'Regan was the people's choice. And in this case, it looks like the people knew what they were talking about.

Quiz time

What is "1984?"

a. Title of a classic book by George Orwell;

b. Year "Purple Rain" hit theaters;

c. Career point total for JMU's Precious Hall;

d. Consecutive victories by the UConn women's basketball team;

e. All except "d."

Pat yourself on the head if "e" was your choice. Obviously, UConn hasn't won anywhere near that many games.


As for Hall, well, we're not taking anything for granted. But since she's averaging 23.9 points per game, let's just say we like her chances of crashing the 2,000-point barrier Friday night in Hempstead, N.Y. when the Dukes visit Hofstra (8-11, 1-7 CAA). Only two other JMU players have ever done so - Dawn Evans (2,667) and Tamera Young (2,121).

Still streaking

On Nov. 11, we visited Harrisonburg and watched the Dukes go 6-for-16 from the free throw line (Brick City!) in a season-opening loss to Tennessee. On Sunday, we saw JMU live for a second time at William and Mary and witnessed a program-record 18-for-18 performance from the line in a 15-point triumph over the Tribe.

Combine this with the 6-for-6 effort in the final 26 seconds in last Friday's victory over Drexel and the Dukes will take a streak of 24 straight made free throws into Friday's game at Hofstra. And the best thing about what's happening is it isn't just one player knocking 'em down. Not surprisingly, Hall leads the way by making all nine of her attempts over this span. But there's also: Butler 4-4; Barrier 3-3; Porter 2-2; Smalls 2-2; Young 2-2, Barron 2-2.

Of course, this streak's bound to end at some point (right?), but the improvement from that first game seems legit. Through nine conference games, the Dukes are shooting 75.9 percent from the line, just a smidge behind league-leading Delaware (76.0). JMU was at 69 percent through its 11 non-conference games.