Sometimes, It's Good to be Wrong

by Will Stewart,, 1/10/02

Open note to Coach Bonnie Henrickson and her team: Okay, I admit it. I was wrong.

About what? Well, I'll freely admit that last season, as I watched the Hokies go through their fourth campaign under Bonnie Henrickson, I was having a lot of negative thoughts about the future of the Tech women's basketball team. I saw a team that:

  • Was getting ready to lose two four-year starters and their best crunch-time players in Amy Wetzel and Tere Williams;
  • Was still looking for a worthy replacement for the long-departed Lisa Witherspoon at point guard;
  • Struggled with the half-court offense, particularly when playing against a zone; and
  • Didn't have any proven three point shooters.

During Henrickson's tenure, as some of the best players in the history of the program graduated -- Witherspoon, Michelle Houseright, Williams, Wetzel, and outside shooters like Katie O'Connor and Maria Albertsson -- their replacements, recruited exclusively by Henrickson, didn't seem up to snuff.

New point guards Emily Lipton and Lisa Guarneri struggled with turnovers; Sarah Hicks seemed to lack confidence and often struggled with her three-point shooting, particularly in her sophomore year; Christina Strother, hampered by a bad shoulder, wasn't developing; and Nicole Jones, who showed great promise as a freshman and sophomore, was slumping badly as a junior.

Of the players Henrickson had recruited, only the smooth and cat-quick Chrystal Starling looked big-time, as did 6-4 Ieva Kublina. But Starling didn't appear to be a go-to player, and Kublina, admittedly just a freshman last year, seemed a little too sedate and not physical enough for the Big East.

Despite the obvious talent and knowledge of their head coach, I watched this team last year and thought that once the gritty Williams and Wetzel were gone, they might collapse from the outside in and turn into an ordinary team. Who was going to be the leader? Who was going to step up when it counted?

Oh, ye of little faith.

Fourteen games into Bonnie Henrickson's fifth year as head coach, the Hokie women are 12-2, with narrow road losses to LSU (66-65) and Virginia (60-58) being the only thing separating them from a perfect record. A few buckets here and one or two fewer turnovers there, and this team could be 14-0 and conjuring up memories of the 1998-99 club, the Sweet 16 squad that went 28-3 before falling to Tennessee in the NCAA Regionals.

Okay, so these Hokies aren't that good (not many teams are), but they're a heck of a lot better and pack more punch than I thought they would. Their point guards still barely have better than a 1-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (92-88, to be exact), but other than that, they have addressed all of my concerns from last season quite nicely.

Last night, in one of their biggest games of the season, the #24 (in the coaches' poll) Hokies blasted the #24 (in the AP poll) Boston College Eagles like they were a middle of the pack Atlantic 10 team, downing them 73-52. They did it by outscoring BC 22-4 in the first ten and a half minutes and 39-23 in the last nineteen and a half minutes.

In the ten minutes between those runs, the Hokies showed their weakness -- ball movement against a half-court trap -- and fell prey to one of the long offensive lapses that have plagued them over the years, even during the 28-3 season. BC put together a 25-12 run that spanned half time and seemed to make a game of it, but this was never really a contest.

The Eagles, a strong perimeter team, matched the Hokies outside the paint. But inside the paint, they were soundly thrashed. BC was missing star forward Becky Gottstein, and it showed. In her absence the Hokies, led by Kublina, dominated Boston College down low, scoring and rebounding almost at will.

Never mind that the expressionless Kublina appears as serene and as peaceful as a Rocky Mountain lake. That cool exterior hides a competitor. Early in this contest, Boston College attempted to go inside on offense, and Kublina sent two shots packing to set the tone. BC immediately went into a funk and struggled against a Hokie man-to-man defense that gave them no room to work.

Meanwhile, down on the defensive end, the Eagles tried a zone on the Hokies, which has been a successful tactic in recent years. Not this time. Working the ball inside and out, Tech shredded the zone easily, hitting long jumpers and working it inside to Kublina. Around the ten-minute mark, the Hokies got two straight three-pointers from Guarneri, an unlikely source, and they were leading 22-4 and threatening to blow BC out of the building.

The Eagles eventually adjusted and put on their run by throwing a half-court trap on the Hokies that made it hard for them to get the ball up the floor. BC also pressed their advantage in one perimeter matchup, with skilled guard Brianne Stepherson (a one-time UConn commitment) driving against the smaller, less physical Lipton and scoring 16 points on 7-11 shooting.

But Stepherson, as good as she was, was all the Eagles had, and it wasn't enough. Kublina dominated BC's post players on her way to a 19-point, 11-rebound, 5-block performance that left the Eagles with no answer. Outside, Starling hit 7-of-8 shots on her way to 19 points, and the double-whammy was too much for Boston College. It's a good thing the game ended when it did, because the Hokies were just padding their lead by the time the clock ran out.

Hicks only scored 4 points in 33 minutes, pulling an oh-fer from three-point range (0-3), but she scored her points in the first two and a half minutes, while the Hokies were making their statement. Jones only had 8 points and just 1 rebound, but on this night, she and Hicks were not needed. They have been there all year long when needed, and they'll be there again when needed.

One reason that Jones didn't have a big night statistically is that she only played 21 minutes. Jones' backup, freshman Erin Gibson, played 22 minutes and had 8 points of her own, plus 4 rebounds, an assist, a block, and just 2 turnovers. The 6-2 Gibson is yin to Kublina's yang, a more physical player who shows good ability and court presence for a freshman. If Kublina and Gibson continue to develop, they'll present a formidable one-two punch for years to come.

The Hokies' secret to success so far this year, using last night's Boston College game as a measuring stick, is uncanny chemistry, the quiet leadership of Kublina, the skilled gamesmanship of their coach, and improved accuracy from the three-point line.

Led by Starling, Hicks, and yes, Kublina, Tech is shooting a remarkable 45.3% from three-point range, up from just 32.7% last year. Hicks, despite last night's 0-3 from beyond the arc, is making 42.9% (27-63) of her threes this season, easily a career high.

This isn't the deepest Tech team in memory. Six or seven players log most of the minutes, with Gibson's stock rising rapidly there. But everyone who needed to step up this season has. They have knocked off some worthy competition in ODU, Clemson, Syracuse, and Boston College, and barring a catastrophic injury, another 20-win season is in their grasp. That would make Henrickson a perfect 5-for-5 in notching 20-win seasons in her career at Tech.

So there, I was wrong. I admit it.


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