It's getting down to the nitty-gritty in DII women's basketball. Let's take a quick look at some sophomores who have played a big role in boosting their team's winning ways.
Some of these sophomores are building off big freshmen campaigns, proving they were no fluke. Others are breaking out in a big way, jumping from reserve role player to valuable starter. All of them are having sensational seasons, and their team's records are showing it.
Riley Fitzwater, Concord
Fitzwater, or Fitz-swatter as we like to call her, caught our attention last season with a big freshman campaign that saw her finish third in the MEC in rebounding and first in blocked shots. Despite the big year, the Mountain Lions finished 13-16.
That’s all changed. Concord is 17-5 with its NCAA tournament aspirations still very much alive, and you can be sure that the strong play of Fitzwater is a big reason why. The sophomore is averaging 14.0 points and 12.0 rebounds per game and is leading DII women’s basketball in blocked shots with 4.30 per game. An insane triple-double on Dec. 1, when she recorded 10 points, 20 rebounds, and 11 blocked shots was one of the standout performances of the DII season.
Irisa Ye, USciences
Last season, Ye scored 6.5 points per game for the 30-4 Devils in a reserve role. This season, she moved into the starting lineup and has taken her game, and USciences, to the next level.
Ye is leading the team in scoring, averaging 16.7 points per game. She is much improved in her efficiency, hitting for 55.6 percent from the field (up five percent from last year) and 42.9 percent from 4 (up over seven percent from her freshmen campaign). The Devils overcame a Jan. 3 loss to a very good Jefferson team and are rolling, with Ye scoring in double-digits in her last nine games.
No. 8 USciences deals No. 2 Jefferson its first loss of the season, 70-59: https://t.co/mEOOyOumUR. Both Alex Thomas and Irisa Ye score 22 points in the Devils' win.— NCAA Division II (@NCAADII) February 6, 2019
Only two undefeated teams remain in women's #D2Hoops, No. 1 Drury and No. 2 UC San Diego. pic.twitter.com/f9GgcGpMWV
Ay’Anna Bey, Benedict
Last season, the Tigers finished 10-17, with a 9-8 record in the SIAC. This year, they are 18-5 and undefeated in conference, looking like real contenders for a return to the NCAA tournament.
Bey has led the way, not simply one of the SIAC’s best players, but all of DII women’s basketball. She’s currently in the top 10 in the division scoring 23.0 points per game, while averaging 11.9 rebounds a night as well. She’s reeled off six-straight double-doubles, including a monster 34-point, 21-rebound output to open February.
Shareka McNeil, Virginia Union
Last season, the McNeil twins took DII women’s basketball by storm, helping Virginia Union fill the void of some of the program’s best scorers and get to a 28-3 record and a spot in the NCAA tournament. Shameka had a slow start to get on the court this season, but Shareka has become the unquestioned leader of the 22-1 Panthers.
She is leading the CIAA in scoring with 22.7 points per game, a 10-point improvement on last year’s debut. Virginia Union has won 13 in a row and looks like it is in the driver’s seat for a postseason return. If Shareka keeps scoring like she has in February (she’s scored 30, 29, and 22 in the first three games), the Panthers are in good hands.
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Payton Richards, Drury
Drury lost some big-time veterans this offseason and looked to some reserves to fill the void. Richards has more than answered the call and this may be the best Drury team since head coach Molly Miller took over, currently undefeated and No. 1 in DII women’s basketball.
The sophomore guard is steady across the board, third on the team with 11.2 points per game and second with 4.2 assists. While Richards could afford to improve in her shooting from the floor, she has been one of the team’s best 3-point shooters the past two seasons as well.
Ariel Jones, Shippensburg
Last season, Jones was one of the best freshmen in the nation, leading all freshmen in scoring with a 21.8 average and taking home PSAC freshman of the year honors. This year, she’s simply one of the best scorers in DII women’s basketball.
Jones is just 0.05 points per game off the DII scoring lead, dropping 26.4 per game. While the Raiders are still a work in progress with a young nucleus, they have already shown a four-win improvement from last year. Jones is the driving force behind that, leading the team in assists and steals as well.
Brooklyn Pannell, Charleston (WV)
We called the Golden Eagles a sleeper for March right here on NCAA.com last week. They have already shown a 5-win improvement and are battling near the top the MEC. Pannell’s breakout 2018-19 is a big reason why.
Sure, Pannell has seen her scoring average jump six points to 13.2 per game from her freshman campaign, but she’s also No. 2 in the MEC with 2.6 steals per game. That coincides with the Golden Eagles top-ranked scoring defense. Pannell is also the team’s leading shooter from beyond the arc, hitting 45 3s at a tremendously improved 38 percent lick, up from 29 percent as a freshman.