The Lewis University Flyers came into the 2015-2016 season with lofty expectations. They were coming off of a 31-3 season that saw them reach the Elite Eight. The Flyers were seen as a real contender and entered the season ranked No. 2 in the preseason polls, projected to be the Great Lakes Valley Conference Champions.
The team was a little different. Four seniors who played significant minutes in last year’s season were gone. New head coach Kristen Gillespie was at the helms. Two big factors remained however: 2013-14 GLVC Player of the Year Mariyah Brawner-Henley and 2014-15 GLVC Player of the Year Jamie Johnson.
“When I was going through the interview process I met with Jamie and Mariyah,” Flyers first-year head coach Kristen Gillespie said of their preseason goals. “They were very clearly that their goal and expectation for this season was to win the national championship. That was the standard that was set and that was what we attacked from day one.”
“We [she and Johnson] definitely had high expectations for each other and for the team,” senior forward Mariyah Brawner-Henley said. “We were thinking about national championship, conference championship, and games being won.”
The Flyers were cruising to start the season, when slowly adversity began to strike. First, starting guard Tiana Karopulos — whom Coach Gillespie would describe as the team’s “best defender, great rebounder, and a spark plug” — would go down with an injury in the fifth game. One game later, Jamie Johnson would go down for the season with an ACL injury.
“When Jamie went down,” Gillespie said, “there was a 48 hour period of people that were very upset. Our next practice, Mariyah got the team together and said nothing has changed. Everyone needs to step up.”
“You can see it on our faces, you could see how we played,” Brawner-Helnley recollected on Johnson's season-ending injury. “We were sad that she got hurt. As the year went on we all knew we had to step up in order to win games. We wanted to win games for Jamie, and we wanted to be successful. Not having Jamie there, my best friend, on the court with me was really a big hit to me, but I was able to settle down.”
They dropped that game to Grand Valley State. But this team quickly bounced back. They have won seven in a row, including their first two out of winter break. In the very first game out of the break Brawner-Henley would make history and set the Lewis rebound record on December 30th.
“It’s such an amazing feeling. A couple of my teammates from previous years joked around telling me I steal the rebounds from them… which may be true,” Brawnier-Henley said with a laugh. “I just have a desire to rebound so it was an amazing feeling.”
The Flyers would follow with a much needed victory over UW-Parkside this past Saturday, 67-63.
The game showed the resiliency of this team. In a season that has seen teams across the nation rising to great heights behind solid bench depth, the Flyers went into the game with seven girls ready to play. Four forwards and three guards. They were so short handed that Brawner-Henley played every position over the duration of the game, including hitting a half court buzzer beater to tie the game at the half and turn the momentum of the game. She would finish with 30 points and 16 rebounds, and take home the GLVC Player of the Week Award in the process.
“She’s been locked in,” Gillespie said. “I knew she was good. The last three or four game she’s just been at a different level. As a coach it’s awesome, she’s just unbelievable.”
“It shows how much heart this team has, how much we can overcome,” Brawner-Henley said of the seven-game winning streak. “We keep finding ways to step up with Jamie and Tiana being out. We’ve all found ways to get better and to come together as a team and play as hard as we can for 40 minutes and get a win.”
Brawner-Henley hasn’t been alone. Freshman forward Jessica Kelliher has had to mature more quickly than expected with the injury to Johnson. She seemingly hasn’t had any issues growing into her roll averaging 18.2 points and 6.6 rebounds on the season.
“I am so impressed by Jess, she’s definitely better than I was my freshman year,” Brawner-Henley said. “She’s amazing. She listens, she’s very coachable. She even gives me advice. We work very well together and I just love playing with her.”
“It takes freshmen a little time to adjust to the physicality and the pace of the college game,” Gillespie said. “But with Jess, that’s her game. That physical play, she’s really tough to guard around the basket. She can score with both hands. And what she does really well is that her play is so unselfish. Her and Mariyah play so well off each other, that it’s hard to double them because they pass the ball so well.”
This Thursday the No. 9 ranked Flyers will take on No. 6 Drury in the game of the week. Karopulos will be back, and the Flyers will be as close to full strength as they have been in weeks.
“All of our players, that’s the game they had circled,” Gillespie said. “But no matter the outcome of Thursday’s game, positive or negative, there’s so much more basketball to be played. We don’t win our league by winning this game Thursday. We’re just trying to keep a real level head. It all comes back to Mariyah, she’s done a really good job of trying to explain to the younger girls to take every game and every opportunity to get better and live in that moment."
Brawner-Henley -- if she hadn't already -- has put herself on the map as a player to watch on the national level. She's now averaging a double-double on the season, dropping 19.4 points a night while grabbing 11.2 rebounds a game. While her numbers have been important, her leadership to this young team, especially after Johnson was lost for the year, has been invaluable.
“I’m blessed that these kids are so coachable. It starts with Mariyah. They [Jamie and Mariyah] set the tone. The players react off that. If Mariyah can take it, if she can admit 'hey, I messed up', then everyone follows her lead. We have really good big character kids, they just want to win. Tiana is a great example. Here’s a Division I kid transferring in, you would think she has an ego, but she could care less if she gets a shot off. She just wants to do whatever it takes to win the game.”
2016 STARTS WITH A NEW NO. 1
The West Texas A & M Lady Buffs opened Lone Star Conference play in 2016 with a 69-58 victory over Cameron. Now at 12-0, WTAMU is No. 1 in the land in Tuesday’s latest USA Today Coaches Poll.
The road ahead is no easy task for the Lady Buffs. After what has become known as the Highway 287 Challenge against rival Midwestern State, they hit the road for a pivotal three-game swing against Texas Woman’s, Cameron and Angelo State. They are currently the top four teams in the LSC and this road trip could set the tone as the Lady Buffs look for their third straight LSC title.
WTAMU has done it behind one of the most balanced attacks in the nation as nine players average at least 14 minutes a game and more than five points a contest. Junior guard Sasha Watson is becoming a force as she is averaging 10.3 points per game while chipping in a career best 3.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.2 steals a night.
CLIMBING THE CHARTS
Lubbock Christian University has patiently bided their time, compiling a 46-8 record over the past two seasons as they transitioned to DII from NAIA. Last season they earned a share of the Heartland Conference title, but had to watch the postseason from the sidelines as NCAA rules require of transitioning teams.
Now able to make a run for the playoffs, LCU is focused on doing so. They currently sit at 11-0 and jumped 7 spots to No. 5 in the nation. They came out of break with a commanding 96-51 victory over Oklahoma Panhandle State, and sit atop the Heartland Conference with a perfect 3-0 record.
The Lady Chaps are led by a balanced attack as well. Sophomore forward Tess Bruffey (12.6), senior point guard Nicole Hampton (12.5) and senior guard Kelsey Hoppel (12.3) are leading the way.
REFUSE TO LOSE
Ashland University makes its first appearance in the Top 10, jumping four spots from No. 11 to No. 7 in the latest USA Today poll. They join WATMU and LCU as the remaining undefeated teams in the nation’s top ten.
Ashland came out of the holiday break and opened 2016 with two commanding wins this past week. This Saturday sees their biggest test of the new year when they face off against GLIAC North Division leader Michigan Tech (5-1 in the GLIAC). Ashland (12-0 overall; 6-0 in the GLIAC) holds a one game lead in the South Division over Findlay (10-2; 5-1).