2006-07 Lady Eagles Peak at Right Time
STATESBORO, Ga. The future looks bright for the 2007-08 campaign of the Georgia Southern women’s basketball program; but only after the challenges of an up-and-down season could the Lady Eagles mark their progress and see their potential.
Picked by the SoCon coaches to finish fifth in the league’s pre-season polls, the senior-less squad returned three starters from the prior year’s team, including 2006-07 pre-season All-Southern Conference Team member Tiffany Brown (Waxhaw, N.C.) and a member of the 2005-06 SoCon All-Freshmen Team Ashley Melson (Newnan, Ga.).
Still recuperating from the prior year’s injuries, the Lady Eagles prepared for the home-opener versus Stetson (Nov. 12), and the results were right on the mark.
Georgia Southern opened the season with an exclamation point, defeating the Lady Hatters 62-46 with junior forward Shawnda Atwood (Pensacola, Fla.) scoring a game-high 16 points and sharing a team-high tally of seven rebounds apiece with classmate Christa Waterman (Sugar Hill, Ga.). Brown poured in 12 points and five boards while sophomore Ashley Rivens (Charlotte, N.C.) silently netted 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting from the field. Melson tallied three steals and four rebounds while freshman Carolyn Whitney (Duluth, Ga.) went a perfect 6-of-6 from the charity stripe in her first collegiate contest.
But despite starting the season off on the right foot, there were some matters still unanswered with a young team battling a tough pre-conference schedule and preparing for league play.
“We didn’t know what would happen,” explained head coach Rusty Cram, in the beginnings of his 11th season striving to quickly translate youth into success. “Certainly every coach would hope to peak in January when you start conference play. That’s what you’re hoping for. But as many new faces that we had out there, with the inexperience that was returning in some key positions, the questions that we had in those key positions, we just didn’t know.”
After dropping the next three road games versus Jacksonville State, Troy and South Florida, the exclamation point was replaced with a question mark.
“When you look at it from a coach’s standpoint,” added Cram, “one of the hardest things that you have to overcome is when you have upperclassmen that are given leeway to incoming freshmen playing time. That’s hard for them to accept. So we had to get through the point of them accepting each other and not being threats, but more being together as a team and understanding their roles. And once they started accepting those, that’s when I thought we turned that corner. It just took us a little longer than maybe we wanted to.”
Then came GSU’s next test pitting youthful talent versus traditional experience as Georgia Southern (with a 1-3 record) hosted an undefeated No. 8 Georgia at Hanner Fieldhouse (Nov. 21).
Attracting the season’s largest crowd 2,182 fans, the in-state battle saw coach Cram starting two freshmen, a sophomore and two juniors in the Georgia Southern lineup. The Lady Eagles produced a 38-35 lead over the Bulldogs going into the break. But with 1:57 remaining, and after 13 hard-fought lead changes, Georgia gained the final advantage and slipped out of Statesboro with a 75-71 win.
The game saw GSU match a school record 13 three-pointers as four Lady Eagles scored in double digits.
Although the visitor walked away with a victory, Georgia Southern’s performance did two things. It not only restored a deserving and talented team back on the radar screen of teams to be reckoned with. But for the Lady Eagles it also reinforced in their minds something they already knew about themselves Georgia Southern has the talent to compete with the best. It was a loss that, despite the final score, had every indication of a victory.
Though they dropped the next game at a strong New Mexico (Nov. 24), the Lady Eagles bounced back by winning the next six out of eight games, including four consecutive victories. Georgia Southern held an even 7-7 overall record.
During that eight-game span GSU lost its SoCon opener by just one point versus College of Charleston (Dec. 16), but the Lady Eagles won their next league game versus Furman (Dec. 30), and later, after Brown’s 26 points versus Wofford (Jan. 2), GSU picked up its second conference win, now standing at 2-1 in the league.
But the victory over Wofford was one of many summits on the roller coaster ride, and sparked by injury, the Lady Eagles suffered a school record seven straight losses, starting with a close, five-point defeat at Elon (Jan. 6) and concluding with a 12-point deficit at Furman (Jan.27).
In addition to returning players back to full health, the team was focusing on doing whatever necessary to break the skid. And that meant finding out the mind of the team.
“One of the first things that needs to happen is the athletes have got to believe that you can listen to them,” said Cram. “And by them believing you can listen to them, you kind of get a feel of where they’re at because sometimes we think something entirely different from what they’re thinking as a team. I don’t think that that is uncommon. I think that’s a common thing across most programs in America when things aren’t going right.
“That’s when we went to four guards, moving Shawnda Atwood into the four position.”
The Lady Eagles soared to new heights in the next two months.
The upward journey was sparked by a road win at Wofford (Jan. 29) that saw Brown match a career-high 27 points on 8-of-10 from the field with four triples. Whitney’s 9-of-10 shooting from the charity stripe was part of a team effort that saw the Lady Eagles hit 32-of-39 (.821) free-throw attempts. Atwood’s triple just before halftime gave the Lady Eagles a 34-31 lead, which set the pace for the rest of the contest. She matched a season-best 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting as the Lady Eagles finally snapped the skid with a significant 82-67 road win.
“We had success at Wofford, playing a pretty good basketball game, and I think it was a major adjustment. That’s the way we finished the year with those rotations to the lineup because they started working and started believing in some things. And certainly when that confidence happens, then good things happen.”
The course continued upward with an historical milestone.
In the next contest, Cram became the winningest coach at Georgia Southern women’s basketball, garnering his 163rd career-win versus Elon (Feb. 3) in front of a home crowd of 1,028 cheering fans. The accomplishment surpassed the mark set by his predecessor, Drema Greer, who tallied a 162-101 track record.
After an eight-point home loss to UNC Greensboro (Feb. 2), the Lady Eagles had to bounce back and play some of their best basketball as they faced a tough three-game road trip in a five-day period.
They suffered a loss at Davidson (Feb. 10), but quickly rebounded to beat the SoCon’s top-ranked team, Western Carolina (Feb. 12), in an 83-81, overtime thriller. The win snapped the Lady Catamount’s 10-game win-streak and gave the Lady Eagles an added measure of momentum to defeat their next opponent Appalachian State (Feb. 14) by a 68-61 score.
“That was a pretty long road trip,” said Cram. “And to think that we played like we did. They couldn’t have done that unless they started believing in themselves. For most teams when you’ve already lost seven in a row, that would have been the time that some would quit. It was the fact that we started taking care of the fundamental things. And when that happens, good things happen.”
Georgia Southern concluded the regular season with a 52-50 victory at College of Charleston and, securing a No. 5 seed going into the Southern Conference tournament, made plans to battle No. 4 seed UNC Greensboro in the quarterfinals.
Having already dropped their first two meetings with the Spartans, the Lady Eagles had one last opportunity to avoid being swept. Georgia Southern produced a solid game, from tip-off, to a 37-30 halftime lead, to an 81-64 victory. Four different Lady Eagles scored in double figures, including junior Chequilla Jessie (Sanford, Fla.) with a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double performance, her second of the season.
The next day’s semifinal match pitted GSU with top-seeded Western Carolina. Georgia Southern produced a nine-point lead six minutes into the game and held on for a 32-31 halftime advantage. But the sharp-shooting Lady Catamounts frequented the charity stripe 38 times yielding 26 points compared to GSU’s 6-of-11 shooting from the line. WCU won the game 73-59, halting Georgia Southern’s journey.
The roller coaster ride ended there. But in the process of challenging ups and downs, the Georgia Southern women’s basketball team that opened the season with a win, became a different team by the season’s end.
And the future looks bright.
Brown was voted by the SoCon coaches to the All-Conference Team and by the media to the All-Conference Second Team. After averaging 19 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in tournament play, she was named to the All-Tournament Team.
Earning a spot on the All-Freshman Team, Whitney was named the consensus SoCon Freshman of the Year’ by both the coaches and media a first for a Lady Eagle.
“I felt like we entered the year fairly healthy,” said Cram. “We can’t use the excuse of injuries next year; we can’t use the excuse of not having any seniors; we can’t use the excuse of not having defined roles. The freshmen certainly aren’t freshmen any more. They have a lot of experience under their belt. So a lot is going to be expected of them. The depth should be there. So there should be no excuse next year not to come out and expect a very solid season. And I feel like we’re in very good shape for the next several years. I think our best days are ahead.“The future looks good.”
- Category: Women's Basketball
- Published on Sunday, 01 July 2007 00:19