Before this season began, Longwood women’s basketball was selected 10th in the Preseason Big South Conference Standings. And from a possible voters perspective, the placement could be somewhat backed up, on paper that is, as this year’s iteration of the team featured seven newcomers who brought untested talent at the Division I level, alongside the program going 3-27 only one year ago; this standing only meant that there was something to prove.
For second year head coach Rebecca Tillett and her fellow coaching staff, there was a feeling of optimism around this year’s team, from top to bottom, from the opening tip, and the ranking served mainly as a motivating factor for the players.
“I think from a coaching standpoint, we knew what we had coming in but not everybody else knows the seven new recruits that we had,” she said.
“With their talent that those seven brought, they also brought chemistry, and that part you hope you get right as a recruiting staff, but we did get it right and so that’s put us where we’re at right now with the fact that the seven we brought in brought with them winning mentalities and winning practice habits, and then our returners accepted them and embraced it.”
Those winning habits have translated into the record column to the tune of an 8-7 record overall and a 4-2 mark in the Big South Conference, which currently places the team fourth out of the 11 team field.
Tillett said she was pleased by the teams level of play in the conference schedule to this point, as the Lancers have either knocked off, or played right there with, teams that were ranked above them in the preseason.
However, she added that the team is still learning how to rise to the occasion, and would like to see more improvement in that area.
The victories have come against Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian, Charleston Southern and USC Upstate, while the losses have come to two of the top four preseason ranked teams in Campbell and defending champion Radford.
The contest with the Highlanders was a game that came down to the final buzzer in front of 1,812 fans, setting a program attendance record, inside of Willett Hall on Education Day earlier this week.
At this point a season ago, through six games in the conference schedule, the team was 0-6 and had lost each of those games by an average of nearly 19 points a game, and it took the Lancers nine games to notch their first in-conference victory.
The increased level this season has been spear-headed by an offense which currently sits at the top of the conference in scoring at 67 points per game and field goal percentage at 40 percent.
On an individual level, alongside the ever-steady senior forward in Dayna Rouse who currently is first in the Big South in field goal percentage (52.7 percent) and sixth in points per game (14.8), it has been freshman guard Kyla McMakin who has stolen the show in the conference, as she leads the way in scoring at nearly 17 points per game.
McMakin, a native of Virginia Beach and record holder of career points at Ocean Lakes High School with 1,990, has given the Lancers an outright scoring threat from the outside that they haven’t had in a long while with her ability to shoot off the dribble or explosiveness in isolation play.
Voters have noticed these outbursts as she has already taken home the Big South Freshman of the Week award four times in the still young season. She admits, with a smile and a laugh, that she didn’t even know the award was a thing when she first began her time at Longwood.
Despite the high praise, she still maintains a team-first outlook on the season, and said she is still learning to deal with the pressure on both ends of the court.
“Every time I play, it’s never for my personal accomplishments, it’s always for the team and what I can do with the team,” she said. “A lot of times, if I get the award, and we didn’t win then it’s kind of a pointless award to me.”
More efficient guard play from prominent ballhandlers has also been a catalyst into the programs turnaround this season as freshman Anne-Hamilton Leroy currently sits 16th in the conference in scoring with just over 10 points per game, and junior college transfer Tra’Dayja Smith follows closely behind in 23rd with nearly nine points a game.
Along with her scoring abilities, Smith has proven to be a natural playmaker as she sits at 11th in the nation in assists with 94. .
Tillett said she expects Smith to get the offense going and to “really run us.” In the Lancers’ January 9 matchup against Charleston Southern, she did just that by way of notching the first triple-double (12 pts, 10 reb, 10 ast) in Longwood's D1 history.
As the games pass by, having the player who can settle things down and get the offense into a solid flow could be the difference for this years’ squad on their march up the ladder in the conference.
On the defensive end, the Lancers currently are ninth in points allowed in the Big South Conference, giving up nearly 67 points per game. Sophomore forward Akila Smith has made a grand impact in wreaking havoc on opposing offenses, as she currently leads the conference in blocks with just over two per game.
Tillett said maybe the biggest factor that goes unnoticed in the stat sheet about (Akila) Smith is her ability to alter plays with active hands to secure deflections.
“She gets her hands on a lot of basketballs that are heading towards someone who can hit it, and she deters the play. I think that’s really important for our team.”
While the Big South Conference title is always the end goal, Tillett said there is still work being done to institute a winning culture overall amongst the team.
“A 20 game conference season is intense and our women are going to, you know, continue to learn how each win in-conference really matters,” said Tillett.
She continued to say, “You know one of the things we said to them before we played Charleston Southern, because Charleston Southern had not won at that point, was that no one in our league was going to go 0-20, every single one in this league is going to find a way to upset somebody. So you want to focus and make sure that you're focused each night and that you don’t get potentially upset.”
“I think this league is close in talent and so we are going to have to continue to execute and grow if we want to keep up,” she added.
The Lancers will have another chance to continue their turnaround on their home floor tomorrow (January 17) as they take on the Panthers from High Point with a 3 p.m. tip.