written by: Neil Frawley
Before I began writing for the VSU women’s basketball team, they were a solid 8-2 and undefeated in their home building.
Then it seemed as if a switch got flipped. The team wound up losing its next 11 out of 14 games.
Was I that very switch?
I would surely hope not, but after personally witnessing every home game and attending several practices−including a couple of the grueling 6:30 a.m practices.
I can assure you that the team’s poor second half did not occur because of a lack of effort.
Nor is there a lack of talent on this team.
On the contrary, this team has the talent to compete with anybody, and they have shown that talent−even though such skill ultimately results in losses−time and time again this season.
Injury has been a major issue for the team all season long.
Maylisa Johnson went down with an ACL injury before the season began. A
lthough not a major scoring threat−averaging about six points per game−Johnson was to VSU what Jason Kidd was to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. She kept the team balanced and acted like a coach on the court, which helps a team big time during moments of stress.
Midway through the season, Maggie Davis and Ivana also got injured.
Both played the center/forward positions, making VSU’s front line very thin at the end of the season.
Still, the VSU roster is riddled with talent. April Thomas is an electric scorer.
Jordan Waugh is a tremendous shooter and an incredible, fundamentally skilled player.
Rashandra Owens is great on the glass. Kourtnee Williams is great at handling the ball through traffic and pulling up with mid-range jump shots.
Ultimately, from my perspective, the problem never was the personnel, nor was it a lack of depth.
The real problem was that this group of players struggled to mesh together, and at times it’s been very noticeable.
There have been several moments−against Delta State, against Lee and against West Georgia, to name a few−where VSU had opportunities to grab hold of the lead and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but they didn’t.
The problem can’t be chalked up to off-the-court issues either.
The team frequently mentions how easy it would be to point fingers and pick out the negatives. But they haven’t and have held several talks about how to turn hard work into hard-earned success.
The real disconnect happens on the court, where mental mistakes−as coach Hill has mentioned several times−have made the difference between a win and loss.
For example, against Delta State, VSU cut the score to three points with 1:30 remaining in the game, but they did not get a single-shot attempt and missed both of their free-throw attempts in the next minute.
No one stepped up. No one said “I will not let this win get away. We WILL win this.” Every team needs someone who can do this.
Not only does this set a standard that others must respect and live up to, it also helps the whole team stay calm in high-pressure situations−the type of situations that not having Maylisa Johnson greatly affects.
In the buzzer-beater loss to West Georgia, VSU found themselves in a similar situation. But this time, VSU got a strong contribution from its 6-0 forward, Amy Duke. After the first half, Duke had nine points and seven rebounds and was well on her way to a double-double.
She got her double-double, finishing with 16 points and 12 rebounds, but it could have been more.
Several times Duke had opportunities to score and decided to distribute rather than try for the score, including one where she dribbled past her defender and had nobody between her and the basket. She passed the ball out to a three-point shooter who ended up missing the shot.
Being a basketball mind, I fully understand the decision. It is nice to get other players involved, and when you are attracting as much attention as Duke was that night, distributing the ball can be very effective.
However, what ultimately makes a team, a coach, and a program look good is a win.
Even if a player records 15 assists, it doesn’t help the team if such actions don’t result in a victory.
And with VSU so in need of a win, it would have been nice to see Duke be the catalyst for that win.
I thought I was about to see a win happen against West Georgia. Coach Hill kept drawing up isolation plays for Duke to get the ball, forcing the defense to either double team her, leaving shooters open, or play her one-on-one.
This is basically Hill’s message to Duke: “we’re putting the game in your hands.”
However, I never saw the fire. I saw the effort, which has been there in spades the whole season. But I didn’t see the fire in the eyes that it takes to stand and fight for the win.
When one player is constantly given the ball−which has been the case a lot with April Thomas, VSU’s leading scorer at about 15 points per game−it’s possibly a sign that other players don’t feel confident.
As a result, players resort to the “LeBron James” offense where one player is selected as the “chosen one” and is given the ball, only to have all the other players clear out and watch what happens.
It’s a poor sight for a coach to see, and one that a coach needs to correct if he/she wants to see better results at the end of ball games.
Having a dominant player is great, and having a player step up and be a leader is amazing. But even if there is a “LeBron James” player−and I use the term in this case incredibly loosely−there still must be a cohesive energy given off by all the other players.
Simply put, you need a TEAM. Delta State University is a team. Lee University is a team. Union University is a team. Valdosta State at the moment is a collection of very good players, and the standings show it.
Coach Hill has been working with a mantra that he calls “working smarter, not harder.” With only two games left on the schedule, plus at least one more game in the GSC tournament, the last few games serve as a sort of “mini” season for coach Hill to work with his players before going into next season.
VSU is coming off a win against Shorter, which should help build confidence and ease any tension in the locker room.
At the end of the day, the VSU women’s basketball team has no reason to get down on themselves.
After being plagued with injury and having to fit in the scoring power of April Thomas, the future of this team is still very bright.
Though the team is likely to miss the Division II tournament and finish at the bottom of the GSC, don’t be surprised if the Lady Blazers come out of the gates in full force next season and rack up the wins.