With a quarterfinal Southern Conference Tournament matchup with Appalachian State looming on Saturday, it’s difficult to understand where the College of Charleston’s women’s basketball is without looking at where it has been.
Last season, the Cougars finished 7-23. The year before that, 10-20. After an encouraging preconference schedule that saw them beat East Carolina and Richmond, the Cougars slumped to a six-game losing streak that was painfully reminiscent of their 1-8 slide to close last season.
But, through all of the growing pains – and what first-year head coach Natasha Adair calls the team’s six-game “learning streak” in January – the Cougars have had one simple goal: Be the best team in March.
March is here, and it’s time for the Cougars to show what they’ve learned. They have already more than doubled their win total over last year, at 15-14, and with an 11-9 SoCon record, the team that was picked to finished 10th in the 11-team league earned the No. 5 seed in this weekend’s tournament. As Charleston prepares for its opening game against the Mountaineers at 2:15 on Saturday in Asheville, here are five questions the team will have to address to continue its success.
1. How do the Cougars avoid “borrowed time syndrome”?
After such an impressive turnaround, is there any fear that this team could enter the tournament subconsciously thinking that they are “living on borrowed time,” and that they have achieved all they could reasonably be expected to achieve this season? While there is always a danger of that, in any sport and with any team, the Cougars are playing their most focused, consistent basketball of the season right now. During a 7-2 run to close the season, they have found a new consistent scorer in three-guard Afreyea Tolbert, and a solid backup post presence in Mikaela Hopkins. Adair is confident that her team has the best depth in the league, and she has found a way to transfer her desire for success to her players. The Cougars may lose in Asheville, but they won’t beat themselves.
2. How many minutes for Tish?
On a per-minute basis, Charleston’s senior center Latisha Harris may be the best player in the Southern Conference. But with Harris, it’s the minutes that count. She has been plagued with foul trouble this season, to the point of fouling out of six games – including the last home game of her career, when she picked up her fifth and final foul on a technical – and has had to spend almost 16 minutes a game on the bench. She has only played more than 24 minutes once in her last eight games, but that night she put up 20 points and eight rebounds in a crucial win over Samford. While Hopkins has averaged 10.2 points and 9.2 rebounds off the bench in her last four games, Harris represents the dominating inside force that could drive Charleston through the tournament. If she can stay on the court.
3. Is Frye due?
In so much as no athlete is ever due anything … yes, shooting guard Alyssa Frye is due for a big game. Charleston’s 3-point ace has been in a late-season slump. She has only scored more than 11 points once since Feb. 8, and she hasn’t had more points than shots since putting up 27 points against Furman on Jan. 28. She has the potential to score in bunches, as proven by the fact that she has hit seven 3s in a game twice this season, but her shooting percentage has fallen to 29.8%. If she can recapture the 15-20 points per game form she had earlier in the season, it could take a big scoring load off of everyone else.
4. Can they get it done at the line?
There are a lot of things that this College of Charleston team does well. And then there are free throws. The Cougars are 10th in the SoCon in free-throw percentage, at 60.7%. Appalachian State tops the league at 76.3%. Granted, the Cougars have been significantly better at the line during their 7-2 closing stretch, shooting approximately 66% during that time, but if it is a foul-laden, free-throw-heavy game, the math favors the Mountaineers.
5. Did it have to be these two teams?
Only two teams swept the College in conference play this year: Appalachian State and potential semifinal foe Chattanooga (the Mocs finished with a 19-1 mark in the SoCon, and are on a 16-game win streak). According to assistant communication director Jeremy Rosenthal, the Mountaineers are 16-1 when they outrebound their opponents, but only 3-8 when they get outrebounded. The Cougars have been strong on the glass all season, and if they can box out, they could neutralize App’s biggest threat. But what do you do with a Chattanooga team that is 26-3, in NCAA at-large position with an RPI of 47 and hasn’t lost to anybody since a road game at Elon on Jan. 7? First, concentrate on beating App. Second, concentrate on beating App. Finally, worry about App. If that happens, the Cougars need to put everything together – Harris must provide strong minutes, Frye needs to shoot well and the team needs a strong performance under the glass and at the line – to beat the Mocs and prove that they are the best team in March.