There is no official statistic that indicates a break out team. For our purposes here, basketball analyst Cain Currie and myself have defined it as a program that reached an unprecedented height in 2017-2018. Teams that were great before and showed signs of returning to the big time this year don’t fit into the “break out” concept, which is about freshness.
Division I break out teams of the season:
Nebraska – Under second-year coach Amy Williams, the Huskers were 21-10 overall and 11-5 in conference for third in the Big Ten – an improvement over last year’s 7-22 campaign. They play with high energy and are fun to watch. Nebraska lost to Maryland in the conference tournament semifinals.
South Dakota – The team that Williams left for Nebraska is doing quite well. They were a perfect 14-0 in conference this year, 26-6 overall, and lost a heart breaker in the tournament title game to South Dakota State. The future is bright for this team, as is the newly-equalized rivalry with the Jackrabbits.
Northern Colorado – The Bears won the Big Sky Tournament and are on their way to the Big Dance for the first time in program history under coach Kamie Ethridge. They were 26-6 this season, which included early preconference wins over DePaul and LSU.
Mercer – First time Southern Conference Tournament champions? Check. First time going to the NCAA tourney? Check. A 30-2 overall and 14-0 conference record? Check. Their last loss was the day after Thanksgiving. Check them out.
Nicholls State – The Colonels started truly hitting their stride in late January, and they peaked at exactly the right time. In the Southland Tournament championship game, they shook off a slow start and rallied to take down big dogs Stephen F. Austin for their first auto-bid. Right now, momentum is in their favor.
Grambling State – The Tigers are the perennial “never give up” team, as they started poorly this year and continued to work, finished 13-5 in SWAC play. Their unlikely conference tournament title game win this weekend put them in the field of 64.
UAB – The Blazers rocked opponent’s socks all season long, and finished 26-6 overall and 13-3 in Conference-USA play with cohesion and fast-paced play. They fell in the title game of the tournament, but their future is blazingly bright.
Jacksonville – Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin, now in her fifth year, has the Dolphins rocking. They finished second in Atlantic-Sun play and lost the tournament championship game to FGCU, but they are growing game by game and are now contenders.
Maine – The Black Bears have had a rough few seasons, and interim coach Amy Vachon was only formally given the title of permanent head coach two weeks ago. But they are back in the NCAA Tournament after a 14-year absence after winning the America East Tournament last week. They seem re-energized.
Drake – The Missouri Valley Conference Tournament winners and NCAA tourney ticket-punchers went 18-0 in league this season with some dominant performances. They appear confident and ready to take on any opponent.
Western Kentucky coach Michelle Clark-Heard had traveled to get to tiny Valdosta, Georgia. But she knew she’d found what she was looking for when she walked into the gym at Lowndes High School.
“We actually just saw her work out,” Clark-Heard said of star forward Tashia Brown. “We didn’t see anything else.”
Brown had reached the 1,000-point club and averaged 22 points per game her last two years at a high school known more for football. Yet, Clark-Heard didn’t need to see any of that. Brown’s work ethic and sweet jump shot sold her on the spot.
“She had so much ability, and she was really athletic and could jump,” Clark-Heard said. “She has one of the sweetest pull-up jumpers I’ve ever seen.”
Offering Brown a scholarship was an easy call, though Brown was largely unknown because she’d never played on the club basketball circuit. But if there was any risk in that decision, Brown has proven her worth as a Lady Topper, and then some.
The senior has been an all-Conference-USA team selection the last two seasons, averaging about 17 points per game. She was an all-conference freshman and reached 1,000 career points as a junior. This year she is scoring almost 23 points per outing – tops in C-USA – which was a factor in her being named the Conference’s Player of the Year earlier today.
Last month Brown was named a Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame semifinalist for the Cheryl Miller Award for best small forward.
“It was very humbling, I was surprised,” Brown said. “But it showed me that my hard work was paying off, and it opened my eyes to what I could be.”
Clark-Heard, who said Brown is “like a daughter” to her, was thrilled.
“When we saw each other (after the announcement), we just hugged,” said Clark-Heard, now in her sixth year running the program. “I told her how proud I was of her, and that no one since I’ve coached here has gotten a recognition like that, and that we’ve done some amazing things.”
Western Kentucky has indeed vaulted to new heights the last three years, in particular, with two regular-season titles and two NCAA Tournament appearances. But the equally-high trajectory belongs to Brown, whose mature disposition and relentless quest for improvement has driven her from humble beginnings, through tragedy, and now to a shot at a professional basketball career.
Clark-Heard has no doubt she’ll be successful.
“I think Tashia will be a great pro player because of her ability to create her own shot off the dribble,” Clark-Heard said. “She has the ability to handle any pressure situation, which will be a plus for her at the professional level. She has been clutch throughout her career, and has no fear.”
That fearlessness is apparent off the court, as well.
Brown was raised by her grandmother, whose example was one of the reasons she first picked up a basketball in sixth grade.
“I started playing because my dad played and my grandma played,” Brown said. “She’d always been my inspiration.”
By eighth grade she realized she had a talent for basketball, and she was right in the middle of an outstanding season when the unthinkable happened.
“I was sitting in my classroom and my sister, who also taught there, called me and told me that Tashia’s grandmother had passed,” said Amanda Hughes, who was Brown’s basketball coach that year. “She had lived with her grandmother her entire life. I said to my sister, ‘no, no, that’s her mama.’ It was a life-changing event.”
Incredibly, Hughes got a text from Brown 15 minutes later telling her she wouldn’t be at practice that day.
Brown went to live with her mother, but it became apparent quickly that the arrangement wasn’t going to work. She had already bonded with Hughes, so she went to live with her.
“She needed somebody, and for some reason she turned to me and I couldn’t turn away,” Hughes said. “Our oldest stepchild moved in and lived with us when Tashia was here. It was tough balancing basketball and everything else, but we made it work.”
Hughes said she tried to keep Brown busy so she wouldn’t be consumed by her grandmother’s death.
“She didn’t let her grief get her,” Hughes said. “Of course she had moments where she got upset, but I reminded her to keep going.”
Having a stable home environment in high school allowed Brown to blossom. On court she became the ultimate athlete and teammate, and off court she worked towards college.
“Tashia is unique in that she’s the most humble person and player, very unselfish and a team player, and she is always wondering what she can do for her team,” Hughes said. “She has always stayed very grounded in everything, and has kept her focus.”
“Other kids might drift from their goals, but she stuck with hers. She never lost focus; she is determined. Many nights when she was here we would talk about her future and her life goals, and she’s stuck with her plan 100 percent. She’s a good kid.”
Brown said her grandmother’s memory kept her going.
“When I lost my grandmother, I knew I was going to get a scholarship for her,” Brown said.
Without financial means to join the club ball circuit, Brown was at a disadvantage when it came to recruiting. But her high school coach knew Lady Topper associate head coach Greg Collins, and when they offered her a scholarship after their visit, she accepted.
As Brown left for Western Kentucky, it was the first time she’d been out of her home state. At school, however, she found a mentor and advocate in Clark-Heard, who took to her immediately.
“She shot over the top of the (male practice players) and no one could guard her,” Clark-Heard said. “She ‘Yes ma’amed’ me to death. I love Tashia.”
Brown had success on the court in her first season, but it still left her hungry for bigger things.
“I had played significant minutes with some great seniors, but I wanted a championship,” Brown said. “Coming in I was very slim, at 130 pounds, with no muscle at all. Off season I worked hard at conditioning, skill development and defense, and I put on some muscle. That’s how I developed my jumper. My focus was on getting better and getting more playing time.”
Her work paid off as a sophomore when she was named to the C-USA all-conference first team. She averaged nine more points per game than she had as a freshman, despite having to switch positions and play guard in place of an injured player. Clark-Heard was not surprised at Brown’s improvement and versatility.
“She has a tremendous ability to grow her mind with the game,” Clark-Heard said. “She watches a lot of film, a lot of basketball. These days a lot of kids won’t watch much basketball, but when you don’t, it hurts you. When she started watching more, she understood the game better.”
Last year the injury bug hit Brown, and it tested her.
“As a junior I had a couple of nagging injuries, and I tried to stay focused mentally,” she said. “But when you don’t perform how you want, it is mentally draining. Then after I was healed, it was getting over that mentality and coming back and playing.”
True to form, Brown kept her struggles hidden, according to her four-year roommate and best friend, forward Ivy Brown.
“She has a fantastic work ethic, and when she battled injuries last year you would never have known it because she came in every single day and worked hard,” Ivy Brown said. “Sometimes I forgot she was battling, because she gives it her all and never lets people see that she’s hurting.”
“My favorite thing about her is that she battles and no one knows. She’s a really good leader and is good at connecting with people. She’s good at motivating people – especially young kids – and picking them up when they get down.”
Brown’s success this season, in particular, is no surprise to her coaches, teammates and family.
“She came in her freshman year and was fantastic, and to see her work even harder was amazing,” Ivy Brown said. “And it’s pretty cool to see how all her hard work has really paid off, and the way she’s become better every year. It is a testament to her work ethic.”
Clark-Heard has put the Lady Toppers against Power Five schools as their record has improved. She has also coached two years for USA Basketball.
“I’ve seen some of the best players in the country, and Tashia is right up there with them,” Clark-Heard said.
Brown’s self-confidence has grown right along with her game.
“When she first came she was so shy she would hardly say anything,” Clark-Heard said. “Now she’s right there in all the press conferences.”
Hughes, who drove up a few weeks ago for Senior Night, said she has also noticed Brown’s growth.
“That makes me feel good that she’s grown confident where she is,” Hughes said. “This past year, especially, she’s really grown and played to the potential she has always had.”
Second-seeded Western Kentucky begins conference tournament play tomorrow, and hopes to make a return to the NCAA Tournament. But regardless of the outcome, Brown has her eyes set on playing professional basketball. Clark-Heard is helping her find representation, and Brown will play in one of the WNBA combines at the Final Four in Columbus later this month. If she is not drafted or signed by the league, Brown will play overseas.
“I would like to be drafted, but I will definitely go overseas, put up numbers over there and get seen,” Brown said.
Clark-Heard said she will continue to help Brown until she leaves campus for the last time.
“I’ve tried to put her in a position to keep growing, because at the next level you have to be really ready to grow,” Clark-Heard said. “I love her to death, and this is her dream.”
Former Big West Conference cellar-dwellers UC Irvine finds themselves in a new spot this season: third in the league, with a 10-6 record.
They are 18-12 overall – their first winning season and first with double-digit wins since 2013-2014.
The program has turned over a new leaf, reaching new heights after several down years with a revamped roster. Second-year head coach Tamara Inoue completely rebuilt the team with five transfers and five true freshmen, who all play a role in UCI’s newfound success.
The Anteaters’ new look was evident in their season opener against the Utah State Aggies. They took an early lead with a three-pointer on the first possession, but then went without a bucket over the next two-plus minutes. Freshmen post Tahlia Garza ended the drought with a layup, and redshirt freshman Autumn Baumgartner knocked down a triple to put Anteaters on top, 10-7, at the 5:41 mark. The two teams proceeded to go back and forth until the Aggies closed out the first quarter with seven unanswered points for an 18-14 advantage.
UCI opened the second quarter with a quick 6-2 run to quickly knot everything at 20-20. Utah State pulled back ahead by four, but the Anteaters kept within striking distance and eventually regained the lead at 27-26 on a Garza layup. They were unable to stay out front, however, with the visitors owning a 33-29 cushion at the half.
The Aggies took control after the break, building a 46-36 lead midway through the third period. The Anteaters responded with five quick points, but Utah State wouldn’t give in, and went up 59-52 at the end of the period.
UCI cut the deficit to 61-59 with 7:10 to go before Utah State went on an 18-9 run to go on top, 81-68, with 2:38 remaining. Jordan Sanders and junior Andee Ritter then made back-to-back trips to the line, where they calmly sank both free throws, starting an 11-0 run. The Aggies snapped their opponent’s run with a free throw, but Yazzy Sa’Dullah answered on the other end with an and-one to even the score at 82-82.
Utah State made a pair of free throws before Sanders’ layup knotted it up once again with 9.1 seconds on the clock. The Anteaters locked down on defense for the final possession as Sa’Dullah picked up a steal with time winding down. She had the ball knocked out of her hands, but it went right to Blanks, whose half-court heave went in at the buzzer for the thrilling 87-84 win.
“Utah State is a really good team and they have a great system in place.” Inoue said after the game. “For us, we’re still learning, so I thought our kids did a really great job of battling.”
Inoue’s young team is indeed still learning.
Until this season, they have lost much more than they have won. In the second game of the 2016-17 season, they ran into a three headed monster in the Gonzaga Bulldogs. They struggled against the Bulldogs’ height, and were routed, 102-38. But they didn’t let the loss shatter their spirits.
“A game like that can honestly break the mentality of a team,” senior forward Sabrina Engelstad said. “I feel we did a good job of keeping our heads up and sticking together.”
Inoue called the game a “gut check.”
“I just told my girls to let that game go, that it’s in the past.” Inoue said. “I just wanted to get that game out of our heads.”
UCI’s struggles didn’t end in Spokane. They continued through preseason, shooting 37 percent from the field and 68 percent from the line, while allowing teams to shoot an average of 43 percent from the field – allowing about 73 points per game. They finished the season 5-26 overall and 3-13 in conference.
While they had a hard time in record, Inoue dedicated herself to improving her team on the court on and on paper. They acquired transfers Autumn Baumgartner from Georgetown, Deijah Blankers from Utah State, Sa’Dullah and Lauren Saiki from West Virginia, and Morgan Green from Michigan State. Each transfer had a different role and experience at their previous school, bringing a different strength to the team.
“I was excited about coming to Irvine.” Saiki said. “I really liked coach Inoue’s goals and system. I saw myself running her system and felt that we could do something special.”
While each transfer had to sit out, due to NCAA transfer rules, they were allowed to practice with the team. In these practices was were on court chemistry was made.
“We got a really good group of girls.” Inoue said, “Each of them were eager to learn and gelled with each other fast. That year sitting out helped them get use to me and my system, and more importantly each other.”
Along with synchronizing on the court, the athletes were able to gel off the court.
“We all started getting along really quick,” Engelstad said. “It never felt that they were here to take our spot, it was more like getting new sisters.”
The Anteaters added five more to their family this season in freshmen Alexus Seaton, Dani Guglielmo, Haleigh Talbert, Sanders, and Garza.
The new-look roster proved to successful, as they improved their record by 56 percent through their first 28 games.
“We have a high level of focus,” Inoue said. “We’re still learning, of course, but we have a higher level of maturity on the court.”
Assistant coach Cecilia Russell-Nava said players are able to take responsibility for the team’s successes and shortcomings.
“Each girl is able to receive criticism and hold themselves accountable, which makes things easy as a coach,” Russell-Nava said, “The girls hold themselves accountable and each other. What more can you ask for?”
This year the Anteaters are shooting 40 percent from the field and 73 percent from the free throw line, led by Saiki and Green.
“Lauren is the coach on the floor for us,” Inoue said. “She has a freakish (basketball) IQ. Morgan gives us so much on offense. She is able to get her team involved, and score quick buckets when we need it.”
Green described her decision to transfer to Irvine as a “leap of faith.”
“I just wanted to go to place where I felt that I can play to my potential,” Green said. “I felt that I would do well in Coach Tamera’s system.”
Green has played well under Inoue. In just her second game of the season she scored a career-high 31 points to lead the team to a 74-67 victory at Hawai’i. It was the Anteaters’ first 30-point performance since Camille Buckley in 2014.
Less than 24 hours after returning from their road trip to the Aloha state, Green dropped a game-high 25 points to lift Irvine over the then-unbeaten UC Santa Barbara Gauchos.
Green’s efforts helped UCI snap an eight-game skid against the Rainbow Wahine and a five-game losing streak to the Gauchos. It was also the first road victory in the their all-time series with Hawai’i since 1995. In addition, they improved to 10-7 overall, marking the first time they have reached double digits in the win column in four years.
As the Big West Tournament kicks off today, the Anteaters’ goals are lofty: they look to win their first championship since 1995. They last appeared in the title game in 1997.
This contest between Florida schools presented USF’s precision offense versus UCF’s stifling, pressing defense. USF’s big guards against UCF’s slightly more athletic guards. In a game that was closer than the final score, precision prevailed.
The teams felt each other out in during a first quarter that was even in every category, including the 16-16 score. Significantly, UCF forced just one turnover off the press.
Size and precision began to win out in the second quarter. USF’s guard contingent of Laia Flores and Laura Ferreira navigated firmly through the UCF press so effectively that Coach Katie Abraham-Henderson backed it off early in the period.
“We were not pressuring them on the ball hard enough to get them to come up the side line to trap so they were dribbling, jump stopping and cross-courting it,” she said. “We needed to pressure the ball way harder in order to get them to the side line so we could trap.”
Oddly, Abraham-Henderson denied ever pulling back the press, despite clear evidence on the court. You can look it up.
Katija Laska, the conference scoring leader, started 0-5, but when she got on track with consecutive threes, USF opened some space, leading by nine at one point.
USF’s defensive plan was to pack the paint, denying drives, and that strategy was effective. But UCF is a team of mid-range jump shooters. The quickness and ability to elevate of Kay Kay Wright, Aliyah Gregory and Zakiya Saunders, each shooting 50 percent or better, kept the score close going into the intermission with USF leading just 33-30.
UCF came out of the locker room determined to drive into the teeth of the USF defense. The strategy was ineffective. USF was able to block their way more often than not, and they threw awkward shots towards the hoop in frustration. The jumpshots of the first half had been more effective, but UCF largely abandoned them in the second.
USF was content to run their patient and precise offense, apparently certain that Laksa was too good to keep missing. That theory proved correct, as she hit two threes in the first four minutes, sandwiching another by Jespersen. Halfway through the third quarter, USF had opened a 14 point lead. After several empty possessions, a Saunders three and a Gregory fast break cut the lead to 49-40 going into the final stanza.
The teams traded baskets, with USF using some clock, until consecutive threes by Ferreira opened the lead to 15 at 4:52 remaining. USF kept it there more or less, despite a furious renewal of pressure from UCF that resulted in just one turnover but six free throws by USF. The combined post presence of Tamara Henshaw and Alyssa Rader scored regularly in this brief period by getting open behind the press.
The real difference in the game was Flores’ ability to break the press, forcing the game to be played in the half-court.
“I thought she did a great job finding people and she found them outside of the ball side area,” coach Jose Fernandez said. “She looked away the post player and found Kit on the opposite end of the floor. Laura [Ferreira]’s two big threes in the fourth were huge. The one from the top and the one in the corner.”
UCF managed just nine points off turnovers. USF shot over 50 percent on the game, and scored 11 more on free throws. UCF shot an acceptable 40 percent, but the decision to drive into the defense instead of pursuing their first-half success from 12 feet was costly.
No. 1 UConn 75, No. 4 Cincinnati 21
Cincinnati, playing in its first ever semifinal, is quick but short. They are fundamentally sound defensively, and made UConn work for its points for a short time during Monday’s second semi-final. But they have never been able to compete for long with UConn, and this contest was no different. It was worse.
Aided by a sub-par UConn performance from beyond the arc, Cincinnati kept the first quarter in range. Cincinnati was unable, however, to navigate the UConn defense. To say the least.
Cincinnati scored its fifth point at 4:39 remaining in the first quarter. They did not score again before halftime. UConn ran off 34 unanswered points during that period, entering the locker room ahead 43-5. I was unable to determine if any Division I team had previously scored zero points in a quarter, but there cannot be many of them.
Shenice Johnson broke the 16:02 Cincinnati scoring drought with a three-pointer at 8:35 in the third period. Sam Rogers hit another three at 3:31. Those six points accounted for Cincinnati’s only points of the third quarter.
Meanwhile UConn did what UConn so often does. They turned Cincinnati over for fast-break buckets. They began to hit from beyond the arc. They worked the ball inside to Azura Stevens, who was so much taller than Cincinnati’s post players that she was nearly automatic. Stevens was dominant in this contest, scoring 21 points on 10-13 shooting, grabbing 13 rebounds (five offensive), and blocking four shots in 28 minutes of play.
UConn’s second team played the fourth quarter, as all the starters rested. By midway through the quarter, Cincinnati coach Jamelle Elliott also took her seniors out, giving next year’s team some tournament experience. Cincinnati outscored UConn 10-9 in the fourth.
The final score was 75-21.
This was UConn’s 100th AAC victory without a loss. Asked how that happened, coach Geno Auriemma had no answers.
“I have run out of ways to describe this stuff,” he said. “Today in the locker room I asked Kia (Nurse) and Gabby (Williams) how many games they have lost in college and they told me two and then I asked Katie Lou (Samuelson) how many games she had lost in college and she told me one. I told them most teams in America lose that many in a week. It must not be easy to do since we are the only team doing it.”
Notes: Gabby Williams, nursing a recurring hip injury, did not dress. Auriemma said that she could have played, but might not have been available for the final if she had. If she cannot play in the final, it will be far more competitive than previous games against USF.
Crystal Dangerfield has found her shot, and has looked more than ready to lead this team further into the post season. Her decision-making is sound, and she senses when the team needs her to be a scorer.
Four USF starters played all 40 minutes.
This was the tenth game in the tournament, and in nine of them, the officiating has been invisible, by which I mean “outstanding.”
The hosts at Mohegan Sun and the AAC have been accommodating and professional. They put on a highly organized tournament with great support and an accommodating staff. Despite this embarrassing semi-final, the competitiveness of the league improved again this season, and the fans got an entertaining weekend (plus) of basketball.
What to expect in the final on Tuesday
USF is playing very good basketball, probably the best of their season. They have chipped away at UConn’s dominance in the two previous games, losing by giving up one or two strong scoring runs. If UConn were to shoot as poorly from downtown, and if Gabby Williams cannot participate, USF has a chance to pull off the upset. The game will at least be worth watching to find out.