April 13, 2012
NEW ORLEANS - When the Tulane University women's basketball team took the court on Nov. 11 to open the 2011-12 season against the Loyola Wolfpack, 18th-year head coach Lisa Stockton and her staff may have had more questions than answers as to how the year would play out.
Who would replace the four graduating seniors of a year ago and account for the 63.6 percent of the scoring output (1,578-of-2,480 points), 40.3 percent of the rebounds (532-of-1321 boards), 49.9 percent of the assists (268-of-537 dimes), 65.5 percent of the steals (222-of-339 thefts) and 33.5 percent of the blocks (56-of-167 swats) the quartet provided last season? How would the team - which featured six freshmen - gel and how long would it take for them to come together? How would the team handle the tribulations of a schedule that featured five NCAA Tournament teams, four WNIT participants and the WBI champions?
When it was all said and done, the Green Wave posted a 23-11 overall record, finished tied for third in the regular-season Conference USA standings with a 9-7 league mark, advanced to the C-USA Championship title game and earned an at-large berth to the WNIT.
"We just had so many questions," Stockton said. "We lost such a large percentage of our output from a year ago, including the unexpected loss of Whitney Bibbins for the season. I certainly think our expectations were lower because we knew we were unsure of who would fill in those holes. We started the year off with a strong schedule and I think we saw early that we had something special. I think this team far surpassed a lot of people's expectations."
Along the way, Tulane went on winning streaks of four, five and six games, posted a win over then-No. 20 LSU and earned a first-round WNIT contest against Mississippi Valley State. Tulane's 23 victories marked the third consecutive season the program surpassed the 20-win plateau and the trip to the WNIT marked the third straight year the Wave earned a spot in the postseason.
Grayson led the team in points (470), assists (119) and steals (78) while ranking second in 3-point baskets (32) and rebounds (200). She became the 24th player in Tulane history to surpass the 1,000-point mark for her career and just the ninth to do so without the benefit of a fourth season. Benzio, meanwhile, paced the squad in field goal percentage (.530), rebounds (309) and blocked shots (73) while sitting second in points (321). Her performance during her final collegiate campaign made her just the second player in Tulane women's basketball history to surpass the 1,000-point/1,000-rebound career mark and just the third player overall (men's or women's) to do so.
And while Grayson and Benzio were proven commodities entering the year, Stockton saw several of her returning veterans step up and assume key rolls and leadership positions. Junior guard Tyria Snow started 28 games at point guard and fellow third-year player Janique Kautsky started 24 at forward. For the year, Kautsky and Snow combined to average 10.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.8 steals per team game.
"Ty and Janique stepped up their game tremendously as well as Brett," Stockton said. "This was Brett's best year by far. We needed our returners to play important roles for us, especially Ty at the point position. We just didn't have a lot of experience there...Overall, the mature play by our returning players was an important key to our success."
The biggest impact, however, came from the Green Wave freshmen as the half dozen rookies as Blagg, Tiffany Dale, Adesuwa Ebomwonyi, Katye Magee, Jamie Kaplan and Ashley Westby all saw action during the 2011-12 campaign. While Westby was limited due to injury, the freshmen combined to account for 43.8 percent of the team's scoring output (923-of-2109 points), 45.1 percent of the rebounds (617-of-1367 boards), 34.3 percent of the assists (173-of-505 dimes), 34.8 percent of the steals (113-of-324 thefts), and 34.3 percent of the blocks (56-of-163 swats).
Blagg, Dale, Ebomwonyi and Kaplan all drew starting assignments and each member of the quartet claimed C-USA Freshman of the Week honors along the way with Blagg leading the way with a school-record four titles. Prior to the 2011-12 season, no league school had ever had more than two different newcomers earn C-USA Freshman of the Week recognition.
"Even when you take a Grace Daly or some of the best freshmen we've had here at Tulane, I've never had a freshman class have this much impact in their first season," Stockton said. "I doubt that there were very many freshmen classes in the nation that were relied upon in critical situations as much as our's this season.
"Putting these freshmen in pressure situations all year played an important role in our success in the conference tournament. I wasn't sure how we were going to respond in Memphis due to the pressure this team felt going into it. They responded in such a positive way which is a great sign for us in the future."
After concluding the regular season with a 71-43 win over Houston, Tulane hardly entered the C-USA Championship with a head of steam as the Wave had dropped three of its final four games before heading to Memphis, Tenn. Armed with a first-round bye, Tulane made quick work of East Carolina in the quarterfinals and dumped host Memphis by 19 in the semis.
The run came a game short of the ultimate goal, however, as regular-season champion UTEP rallied late for a 69-65 victory in the C-USA title game. And while Tulane's season came to an end two games later with a 69-55 loss at Texas Tech in the second round of the WNIT, Stockton could not help but smile when talking about the future of the program.
The Green Wave are expected to return 11-of-12 letterwinners, the freshmen who made such an impact in their inaugural collegiate season will be a year stronger and more experienced and Tulane will welcome the talents of a trio of incoming freshmen.
"I thought we saw some great bright spots from those young players and our goal going into the spring and next year is don't settle, let's advance ourselves and really improve ourselves," Stockton added. "We're spending a lot of time with individuals and trying to get individuals to advance their game. If we can do that, I think this team can come together and be very strong next season.
"I'm very excited about how this freshman class can impact the program and the level that we can achieve. Olivia will return as one of the top players in Conference USA and should be set for her best season yet. We have been to the NCAAs and have been nationally ranked over the years, but there are some levels that we haven't yet achieved. With this group and the players coming in, we have a shot at it. We want to be `the team to beat' in our league and we also believe we can be a Top 25 team and have a consistent presence in the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully, this group can develop, embrace these goals and achieve that for us."