Coming off a successful season, winning the A10 regular season and postseason championship, the UD women’s basketball team will have to mix youth and experience to achieve similar success. Photo courtesy of Keegan Gupta, Flyer News.
Now past an off-season unlike any other, the University of Dayton women’s basketball team transitions from the early practice stage to the last 10 days of practice before the season begins Nov. 25 at Morehead State.
For head coach Shauan Green and her team, a big adjustment has been bringing in five true freshmen to a team that already favored youth, with just three fifth-year seniors and two juniors.
However, with guards Bailee Adkins and Anna Lemaster sitting out the season due to medical issues, the three true freshmen who will play are guards Capria Brown and Makira Cook, and 6-foot-5 center Tenin Magassa from France.
“With Makira and Capria and Tenin, I think they’re all highly talented players,” Green said. “And I’ve really seen, in the last week or so, they’re starting to be confident… starting to get it. They’re starting to understand the expectations and standards, and the consistency and the effort needed daily in order to make an impact at this level.”
Green said all three are going to “have to play” and that she is counting on them to make an impact. Green is not alone in seeing improvement from the young players and recognizing their need to make an impact right away.
Fifth-year senior Erin Whalen said the mix of freshmen and underclassmen creates an “interesting dynamic,” but everyone “gets along.”
“Sometimes, you do look across the court and be like, ‘Wow, we are really old,’” Whalen said with a light chuckle. “But no, I mean our team’s great. We’ve done a lot of different activities to kind of bond us more together, but for the most part, everyone really gets along… I don’t really see the divide as much.”
Whalen, who was named to the pre-season Atlantic 10 First Team, returns from a season where she averaged 28.9 minutes, 12.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists per game and a team-high 66 three-pointers made.
Whalen’s role as a fifth-year senior is not just to be a leader for the young players on the team, but also to manage the pressure that comes with managing the high expectations which are placed on Whalen and the rest of the team.
“(The expectations) add a little bit of pressure,” Whalen said. “I mean, I obviously want us to succeed, and help the team get to another A10 championship, and so I think it’s more of, it just helps you focus in a little bit more. Obviously, the pre-season stuff is cool, but we care more about what happens in the postseason.”
Whalen is not the only player that carries a lot of expectations. For fellow fifth-year senior guard Araion Bradshaw, her role as a leader has intensified with the losses of 6 seniors – Jayla Scaife, Shakeela Fowler, Julia Chandler, Jordan Wilmoth, Brittany Ward and Christine Szabo.
Bradshaw was particularly close with Fowler, and had a connection where they both knew where the other was going to be next on the court. Bradshaw, who was named to the A10 Third Team and All-Defensive team, said that connection has already begun with the freshmen, as her role changes into more of a teaching role.
“The biggest change for me as a leader is that I have to teach a lot more,” Bradshaw said. “And to be able to teach, you have to have trust, (the freshmen) have to trust the things you are saying.
“So that goes into spending time with them, getting to know them, just being genuine and last year, I had so many seniors that knew me very well, I knew them very well, we already had that established trust… I think this year it’s been a concerted effort of all of ours that we continue to build that trust… on and off the court.”
For the Flyers to succeed this season, building trust among the team is at the forefront of those plans. Another part of their chance at success is the play from the players outside the three seniors – Whalen, Bradshaw and guard Jenna Giacone – starting with junior forward Kyla Whitehead.
Last year, Whitehead averaged 29.4 minutes, 7.2 points, 6.2 rebounds per game and shot 50.6 percent from the field. Whitehead was also named to the A10 Third Team, but said the expectations – along with the Flyers projected to finish second in the conference – “aren’t that high” for her.
“Personally, those aren’t high at all for me,” Whitehead said. “Third (Team) is not that high for me, second is definitely not high, especially when we’re the reigning champs. I don’t think that we pay too much attention to those (projections) because honestly, it’s other people’s opinions on us, so our job is to do our work on the court… We make it a point not to get into politics, because at the end of the day it’s about who goes out on that court and works the hardest.”
Whitehead’s competitive drive is something the whole team has taken to heart through this difficult off-season. Even with the difficulties of finding a gym, Whitehead was able to work on bodyweight strength training and ball handling before she was able to get back on the court.
Since practices have begun – and even going back to last season – Whitehead’s partnership with her fellow forward, sophomore Mariah Perez, will be important in building the Flyers’ post presence.
“I think this will be a great year for (Perez),” Whitehead said. “She had a lot of people to look up to last year, we had a lot of post seniors in our group, and I think that helped her mentally. She’s always willing to work hard, always asking questions, always eager to learn, she’s never afraid to be wrong, and I think that’s great for her. And we gel together pretty well on and off the court, and that’s what you want with your teammates. So I’m excited to see what she’s doing this year.”
Similarly to her connection with Perez is Whitehead’s relationship with Tenin Magassa is tough because of the language barrier – English is Magassa’s third language, according to Whitehead – but Magassa is “willing to learn” and is adjusting to life in the United States.
For Magassa, Whitehead and the rest of the team, a major adjustment this year has been off-season work. White Whalen worked on a lot of her all-around game – ball handling, coming off screens, making reads, being “bigger” on the offensive end and being a leader overall – with a trainer she had worked with since eighth grade, Bradshaw watched film, worked on a consistent three-point and mid-range shot, off-ball screens and finishing in the lane at a Next Level gym at home in Boston, Mass.
Even with all the improvements the players made individually over the summer, head coach Green said the team worked on growing as a team and building chemistry with so many new players. But with the first game approaching on Nov. 25 at Morehead State, there are still some areas Green hopes to see improvement in.
“We still have a lot to get in,” Green said. “With having limited time in the pre-season, we don’t have everything in that we normally would, but we’re just really trying to, especially with eight new kids – we’re just trying to be really solid with what we do, and that’s our defense and our core principles defensively.
“And then offensively, really flowing from our transition to our half-court offense is what I would like to get a little bit cleaner, but we’re just gonna have to start the year with having a couple things that we normally would have done.”
Green added that while there’s still some “extra stuff” to work on, the main focus is on the core principles on offense and defense.
With the first game nearing, Green and her team are honing in and relying on the leadership of the three seniors, who Green called “unbelievable” and who know “what it takes… what needs to be done.”
While the Flyers open with two road games (Nov. 25 at Morehead State, Dec. 2 at Illinois State), their first home game will be played on Dec. 6 against Central Michigan at UD Arena.
With the right mix of youth and veteran experience, the Flyers could live up to or even surpass their projected second-place finish in the A10 and a chance at their fourth regular season A10 championship in five seasons.