Six games into the season, Lewis University women’s basketball team lost senior guard Jamie Johnson to an ACL injury. Johnson averaged 22 points in those games.
It was definitely a blow for first-year coach Kristen Gillespie, who was taking over a team that went 31-3 a year ago and advanced to the Elite Eight.
Before the Flyers tipped off the 2015-16 season, Gillespie already knew the players accepted her and her basketball philosophy and that started with Johnson and senior Mariyah Brawner-Henley.
“They said, ‘Hey coach, our goal is to win a national championship. You are our coach, whatever you say, we are going to do.’ ” Gillespie said. “That was huge. Every other player followed suit.
“When Jamie went down in November with an ACL that leadership tended to fall on Mariyah Henley’s shoulders. Alyssa Dengler, a senior guard, has been great, also.”
The cohesive bond through adversity has put Lewis atop the Great Lakes Valley Conference standings. Ranked seventh in coaches Top 25, Lewis heads on the road for an important conference game at No. 20 Quincy, Feb. 11 at 5:30 p.m. CT.
Lewis is 22-1 overall and 13-0 in the East Division, holding a three game lead over Ballermine. Quincy is 19-3 overall and 10-3 in the West Division, tied for second with Truman State and one game behind 13th ranked Drury.
“With teams like Quincy and Drury, they are always going to give you a glimpse of what postseason may look like,” said Brawner-Henley, who is averaging 20.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. “You never know what is going to happen in those games. They are very good games to prepare you for what can happen in a regional. I’m glad we get to play these games a little bit later in conference. There is a lot you can learn from these games.”
Brawner-Henley has definitely been one reason why the Flyers are having another great season. On Monday, she was selected GLVC women’s basketball player of the week for averaging 22.5 points and 13.0 rebounds last week.
Brawner-Henley gives Gillespie credit for making the transition to a new coach go smoothly.
“It is her ability to make us feel comfortable with each other,” Brawner-Henley said. “When she came in, she talked about change doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We all settled down, trusted her and believed in her. When you have that as a team, it makes it easier to win games and trust the coach.”
The Flyers have five games left in the regular season. They will be tested over the next three days. After facing Quincy, they travel to Truman State on Saturday. Lewis concludes its regular season with three home games.
“They know it is a big one,” Gillespie said of the Quincy game. “Anytime you go on the road against a ranked opponent, you know the stakes are raised a little bit. The great thing about our team this year is they really tried to live in the moment. They know how tough our conference is.
“Being undefeated in conference, we get everyone’s best shot. You have to be prepared. We talk about it doesn’t matter the name on the jersey. It is about us playing up to our potential.”
Seniors like Brawner-Henley and Dengler hope the stretch run turns out as good or better than last year when the Flyers reached the Elite Eight.
“As a senior, you definitely want to get back to where you were just a year ago,” Brawner-Henley said. “The circumstances are a little different. We have new people in the mix. It is going to be a fun ride to be able to work that hard and hopefully get there again. I hope we get there again.”
No. 6 UC San Diego prepares for big game against No. 9 Chico State
It is simply the biggest game so far in the California Collegiate Athletic Association. UC San Diego, ranked sixth in the coaches poll is 18-3 overall and 13-2 and in first place in the CCAA. No. 9 Chico State, 18-3, is just a half game back at 12-2. In addition, UC San Diego has won five straight and Chico State is on a six-game winning streak.
“We know it is a big game,” senior forward Drew Dyer, who is averaging 15.4 points per game. “We know there is a lot at stake. We want to use that energy to prepare and have good practices to really mentally know our assignments and what we need to do on Friday to be successful.
“When Friday comes, that is when we really have to control our excitement and make sure we don’t waste our energy. We have to make sure we do our same routine. This game does mean a lot and has more importance than games in December. We will stay the course. We have a lot of guys who have played in big games before.”
The trait that UC San Diego coach Eric Olen likes about his team is the consistency the players have shown by overcoming injuries and coming off a stretch of playing seven of its last nine games on the road.
“I’m pleased with that and the mental toughness we have shown,” Olen said. “We have played with a lot of consistency. For the most part, we have played good basketball on a regular basis.”
Dyer said the Tritons enjoy the challenge of being on the road.
“You walk into an away gym and nobody is cheering for you,” Dyer said. “We have great fans and great parents who travel, but when you are in an opposing gym, you can feel your back against the wall, and we have guys who respond to that. We come together really well. We are a family unit. We are able to play hard and stay focused on what we are supposed to do and not get lost in what is going on around us.”
A win by the Tritons will give them the edge to win the regular-season title. They will have three more home games and play at Cal State San Marcos, which Olen said is basically in San Diego.
Dyer wants the Tritons to play well on Friday against Chico State, but he recognizes that regardless of what happens, UC San Diego still has much more to play for in March.
“This isn’t the conference championship game,” Dyer said. “It isn’t the national championship game. We will keep that all in perspective. We are going to be excited. That’s why you play the game, to play in big games like this one, feel the moment and have fun.”
Scott Burrell enjoying first year as Southern Connecticut men’s basketball coach
Burrell, who spent his last eight seasons as an assistant coach at Quinnipiac, knows all about competing. He played collegiately at UConn and was a first-round pick in the NBA. His NBA career included being on the Chicago Bulls 1998 NBA championship team.
At the Division II level, Burrell said you have to find kids who have that drive to get better and that’s in the classroom, socially and on the court.
“One of the great things about coaching at Southern is all these kids are great kids and they love the game, they compete and they are fun to be around,” Burrell said.
Because of players like Williams and Mallory, the first season for Burrell couldn’t have run smoother.
The Owls will take a 19-5 overall record and 14-2 and first place in the Southwest Division in the Northeast-10 Conference to Albany, New York and take on Saint Rose at 4 p.m. ET Saturday in the Division II Basketball Showcase on American Sports Network.
Southern Connecticut is coming off a successful season in which it finished 24-8 and made it to its regional championship game, just one victory shy of reaching the Elite Eight. But the Owls lost 48 points per game off that team.
“We inherited an All-American and a very good player,” Burrell said. “I love coaching these two kids, Mike Mallory and Desmond Williams. They are two great leaders that bring it to practice. They make everyone better and that makes coaching a lot easier.
“If your stars don’t bring it every day, it doesn’t help the growth of your team. Mike and Desmond bring it every single day, which is awesome.”
Burrell is thankful for this opportunity. He grew up Hamden. His parents went to Southern Connecticut.
“Coach Michael Donnelly did a great job while he was here,” Burrell said. “I have a great president in Mary Papazian and great athletic director in Jay Moran. They are awesome to work for.
“To get a chance to get a head coaching job and work for two great people, you can’t ask for more. They are your biggest supporter and are great for me.”