With 10 players back, including four starters, the East Central University women’s basketball team is poised to have enough experience to make a run at a Lone Star Conference Tournament berth in 2010-11.
The Lady Tigers were in contention for a postseason spot, but four injuries, three of which were season-ending, led to them fading down the stretch and finishing 12-15 overall and 4-10 in the LSC North in 2009-10.
“The key for us is staying healthy. Of our 10 returning players, five are seniors,” said ECU 19th-year head coach Kent Franz. “We’re more mature with five seniors and all of them know that this is their last shot. There seems to be a little more urgency at this point in time. Hopefully, it will carry over to the season.”
In order to take that next step, improvement will be needed on defense and rebounding, according to Franz. The Lady Tigers scored nearly 15 points per game more than the previous season, but surrendered about 15 points per game more in 2009-10. ECU was dead-last in the league in rebounding defense and next-to-last in rebounding margin.
“Last year we were near the top (of the LSC) in a lot of defensive categories, but because we were at the bottom rebounding-wise, it cost us,” Franz said. We would do a pretty good job on defense, but couldn’t get off of it because the other team would get the offensive rebound.
“Those two areas need to be the difference for us. Even on your worst offensive night, if you defend and rebound, you’re still going to give yourself a chance to win.”
An up-tempo style of play is a viable option for ECU, but it could change.
“Last year we made a concerted effort to try and speed the game up and not to have to grind it out each possession in the halfcourt. We did have some success. But the only problem with that is that you’re shooting quicker and there’s more possessions which put you on defense more,” said Franz. “We may speed it up more, but we’ve got to play defense and rebound better. If we’re not going to do that, we’ll have to slow it down.”
Franz is excited about his returning players, including two guards who picked up postseason awards last year.
ECU welcomes back senior guard Casi Rawls, who was an All-LSC North Second Team pick, and sophomore Jourdan Clark, who was named LSC North Freshman of the Year, despite missing the final four games of the season with an injury.
Rawls led the Lady Tigers with a 15.1 scoring average last season (seventh in the LSC) while shooting 84 percent from the free-throw line (third in the league), 40 percent from the floor and 31 percent from 3-point range. She was also eighth in the conference in assists with a 3.8 average.
“She’s poised to be what we thought she would be when we brought her here as freshman. We envisioned her to be an all-conference type of player,” Franz said. “The key to her success and our success is her ability to make the right decision of when to try and finish or distribute the ball. I thought she did a much better job last year of not forcing the issue and getting her teammates involved.”
The cat-quick Clark was third in the LSC in steals with 2.6 per game while averaging 11.0 points, 5.1 rebounds and over two assists per contest before going down a season-ending injury.
“She had a breakout freshman year even though it was cut short with the torn achilles with five games to go. She seems to have come back very well from that procedure,” said Franz. “She has a knack for finding the crease in the defense. She’s real hard to handle in the open court. If you give her too much cushion for penetrations, she has the ability to knock down the 3.”
ECU’s four other seniors – guards Krista Bullis and Laura Harris, along with forward Indhira Ramirez and post Emily Holombek - are expected to make major contributions in 2010-11.
The sharpshooting Bullis averaged 9.1 points per game last year while shooting 38 percent from 3-point land and hitting at a 78 percent pace from the charity stripe.
“I thought she had a decent year last year, but she still doesn’t shoot the ball enough from 3 to suit me. If I had my wish, she would have 10 attempts from 3 every game,” Franz said. “She’s such a good shooter and I feel confident she would make at least half of them.”
Harris, plagued by injuries during her career (twice suffered season-ending injuries to both knees), is back and appears to be progressing well, according to Franz. Harris averaged 5.1 points and 3.5 boards before going down with the injury last season after 14 games.
“A lot of the time it’s the case of overcoming the mental side of the injury. Structurally, her knee is sound. She needs to trust when she plants on it, it’s not going to give,” said Franz. “The best thing she brings is that she is able to spot up on the perimeter and keep the defense honest. If you give her a good look at it, there’s a good chance she’s going to make it.”
One of the most athletic players on the team is senior Indhira Ramirez, who played in all 27 of the team’s games last season and started seven while averaging 6.4 points and 5.0 rebounds.
“Athletically, she’s as good as we’ve got. She could be a major contributor for us in the post if she continues to get better defensively and keep her focus on the offensive end,” Franz said.
Senior Emily Holombek, who came to ECU as a volleyball player, returns after playing the last 11 games for ECU during the 2009-10 campaign. She joined the team with 11 games to go after the Lady Tigers were smothered by injuries. She exhausted her volleyball eligibility in the fall of 2009 and served as a graduate assistant coach in that sport this past season.
On the basketball floor, Holombek averaged 5.4 points and 3.5 rebounds and totaled 11 blocked shots during her abbreviated season of play.
“She helped us out big time when we were in a bind. She had to learn a bunch of stuff on the fly, but she will really benefit from going through preseason camp. I think she just scratched the surface of what she could do,” said Franz. “She hadn’t played competitive basketball in four years (since high school). She looks like a basketball player now and gives us strength and depth in the post. At 6-1, she’s athletic, can run and jump. She gives us something we haven’t had here in a while.”
ECU returns two juniors in post Kelcie Nunley and guard Jordan Thompson.
Nunley was averaging 5.3 points and 4.8 boards before a broken thumb sidelined her for the team’s final 11 games.
“We really felt like she was starting to come into her own last year, only to have it cut short with the broken thumb. Hopefully, she can pick up where she left off and give us some quality time,” Franz said. “She is probably the most physical post player we’ve had in a while and we need her to pick up where she left off last year.”
Thompson appeared in 25 of the team’s 27 games and started three as she averaged 2.0 points and 1.1 rebounds.
“She gave us some great minutes off the bench last year. She’s the type of kid that shows you what hard work can do for you. Her best asset is to float around the perimeter and spot up. If she can get a good look (at the basket) more often than not she’s going to make it,” said Franz.
Clark isn’t the only returning sophomore as Regan Browne is back after playing in all 27 games as a true freshman and starting 13, most of which came during the conference schedule. She averaged 6.0 points and 2.5 rebounds for the season.
“She’s a very physical point guard. She did a good job last year of not only recognizing opportunities on the fast break, but did a good job of getting us in half-court sets if there was nothing on the break,” Franz said.
Redshirt freshman Ashley Robison is back after spending a season in the program learning the system.
“People will be excited to watch her play. Her motor is always running and she did benefit from the redshirt year in that she didn’t have to learn under the gun so to speak,” said Franz. “Her versatility will give us a lot of options that we haven’t had because she can play in or out.”
The team’s only true freshman Sydney Stoup will be a redshirt this season.
“She had an outstanding high school career at Konawa. Because of the amount of returnees, we’re going to red-shirt her this year. Like Ashley, she will have the opportunity to learn at a not so hurried pace, which will allow her to be that further along next year and she’ll have four years of eligibility,” Franz said.
The Lady Tigers officially open the 2010-11 season on Friday at home against Newman (Kan.) at 6 p.m., before hosting Texas A&M-International on Saturday at 6 p.m.