The USI women’s basketball team did a number on Marygrove College on Sunday. Several numbers, in fact. A look down the final stat sheet shows that the Screaming Eagles not only outrebounded Marygrove 69-30, setting a single-game school rebound record, but also outrebounded the Mustangs 25-14 on the offensive glass. Think about that for a moment. For all intents and purposes that’s 25 additional chances to score. And it was even more stunning on the defensive glass — USI 44 defensive rebounds to just 16 for Marygrove.
Then there are the assists. USI piled up 20 to just four for the Mustangs. Junior Jessica Parker, who came off the bench, had five but nobody else had more than three. In fact, nine of the 10 players who got into the game for USI passed out at least one assist. And everyone who played scored at least two points.
There are also numbers to worry about. For example, the Eagles turned the ball over 19 times, 12 of them registering as steals for Marygrove. Most of those thefts, from what I saw, resulted from sloppy play on USI’s part — soft passes, bringing the ball down to the waist while standing under the basket instead of keeping it above the head, a lack of awareness of who was lurking nearby.
Still, the main thing is USI is 7-0. The Eagles haven’t started this well since the 2000-01 season when they won their first nine games. Their next game isn’t for nine days, Dec. 18 at home against Cedarville University. After that, they’ll wait until Jan. 3, when they open their GLVC schedule at home against Missouri-St. Louis.
To advance USI’s women’s basketball game Sunday at home against Marygrove College, I write in Sunday’s Courier & Press about Nicole Hazemi. She’s a 6-1 junior forward who has suddenly become a scoring threat this season after two years of mostly unexceptional play. What I wasn’t able to work into the story was how Hazemi shoots.
She uses her left hand. But she’s naturally right-handed. Her explanation for why this came about: “When I was younger, I shot with both hands. Then they (her coaches) told me to shoot with one hand, and I picked my left hand even though I’m right-handed. I even shoot free throws with my left hand.” USI coach Rick Stein, though, likes that she shoots left-handed and that it was a plus when he was recruiting her. “You have a left-handed player that can throw off a defense,” he said, meaning that because most players are right-handed, guarding a left-handed player would necessarily be a little more difficult because it’s different. “I think it’s a strength of hers, being a left-handed post player.”
She also shoots with an odd fadeaway style, falling away from the basket as she shoots. What makes it especially unusual is she is 6-1, taller than most female players at the Division II level; she should have no reason to fall away from the basket since few players are tall enough to block her shot. Yet, even her hook shot is a “fader,” as she puts it. The result is, quite frankly, a rather awkward-looking shot. Sometimes she even seems to contort her body to get one of these “faders” off.
But now it’s working. She’s averaging 6.8 points and has already scored 15 points in one game (against Notre Dame College). Suddenly, Hazemi has added even more depth inside for a team that already starts two outstanding players, sophomores Anna Hackert and Mary O’Keefe, in the paint.
USI coach Rodney Watson has a way to tell how well his defense is playing: watch an opponent’s ball reversal and count how many points that opponent scores after it reverses the ball. If you don’t know, “ball reversal” is basketball jargon for whipping passes around a defense, from one side of the court to the other, in an effort to force that defense out of position. Do it well and open shots ensue.
He doesn’t think his team’s defense is succeeding at stopping or limiting points off ball reversals, despite its 4-0 record. “It’s just OK,” he said. “When the ball is reversed, that’s when we have had problems. How you react when the ball is reversed — how an opponent shoots against you when the ball is reversed — that’s how you can tell how good you are at defense.”
USI has several new players this season, so it’s taking awhile to get used to Watson’s schemes. I did ask him if he had specific statistics on how often opponents score after reversing the ball on USI, but he said he didn’t have anything concrete, that it’s something he just sees on video and in games. But he did say one could track that during a game. I may try it sometime. It won’t be anywhere near scientific, but it would be interesting to see what he means on paper. I”l get back to you on that.
Keith DeWitt’s getting hurt may be what USI’s basketball team needed early in the season. His disappearance with that knee injury after scoring 25 points in the Eagles’ season-opening win over Kentucky State has forced others on the team to play better.
“Keith was like our bail-out person the beginning of the season,” said point guard Lawrence Thomas, and he’s right on about that. In the exhibition game against Evansville and even in that opening contest, there was a tendency among USI’s players to step back and let — or even watch — DeWitt take over. Can’t say that I blame them, though. His aggressiveness sucked all the air out of the opposing team’s defense, which suddenly had to collapse on him out of self-preservation. He would literally rise above it all, dunking, rebounding, slapping the ball to teammates.
He’s supposed to return for next weekend’s Fern Valley Hotel Classic at Bellarmine University in Louisville. So far, the Eagles are averaging 75.7 points over the three games DeWitt has not played. Taylor Wischmeier has averaged 17.3 points during that period while Aaron Nelson, who replaced DeWitt, has averaged 13.7 — and 9.0 rebounds.
“If we get good without Keith,” said Thomas, “we could be dangerous.”
Rodney Watson had said last week that Keith DeWitt would probably not play on Saturday in USI’s home game against Notre Dame College, and he won’t. DeWitt is still recovering from surgery to repair cartilage in his left knee. By the way, despite Watson’s yelling at him not to do it, the 6-9 senior ran at least one wind sprint at Thursday’s practice. I’m no doctor, but he looked fine to me — and pretty fast, to boot.
OK, so there will still be pizza served at the concession stands (breakfast pizza perhaps?), but USI will play a men’s basketball exhibition game on Wednesday, Dec. 19. Harris-Stowe State, an NAIA school out of St. Louis, will be the opponent. Tipoff is 11 a.m. Yes, that’s not a typo. USI coach Rodney Watson, though, has gotten fully into the spirit of the pre-noon contest and is inviting schools — in particular, elementary schools, nursery schools, kindergarten classes, just about any place that looks after little kids while their parents are at work — to the Physical Activities Center to watch the Screaming Eagles.
Actually, the main reason for this game is Watson’s strong dislike of long layoffs between contests. USI plays two regular-season games on back-to-back days Dec. 14 and 15 at the Fern Valley Hotel Classic at Bellarmine University in Louisville, then doesn’t play another game until Dec. 29, a home matchup against Cedarville University out of Ohio. I’ve written about this before, but the culprit is the NCAA and its desire to give student-athletes more time to themselves. To do that, it lopped two games off Division II teams’ schedules. That, in turn, left yawning gaps between games. USI is coming off one of those on Saturday, a two-week layoff that Watson hasn’t minded quite as much because final exams began this week.
Anyway, Harris-Stowe right now is 1-6, if anybody cares, and the Eagles have usually beaten them like a drum (USI won 73-46 last year and 105-76 two years ago), which might explain why it’s an exhibition rather than a game that counts in the official record. But it’s a game rather than an intrasquad scrimmage, which Watson believes would do his team absolutely no good.
As of Monday, the Great Lakes Valley Conference has five men’s basketball teams without a loss: Indianapolis (6-0), Bellarmine (5-0), Kentucky Wesleyan (4-0), Drury (5-0) and USI (4-0). Two others have only one loss: Missouri-St. Louis (5-1), projected as one of the league powerhouses this season, and … Maryville?
Yep, Maryville. That tiny school on the far west side of St. Louis directly off 40 (that’s what St. Louisans call I-64 because, presumably, it was once just U.S. 40) is 6-1. The key for these guys is defense. Maryville is giving up only 59.6 points per game, primarily because it’s holding opponents to just .385 field-goal shooting, including just .229 (36-for-157) from 3-point range. As for its offense, three players are scoring in double figures — Asa Toney (13.9 points per game), Armon Provo (13.7) and Gerald Shaw (11.5) — and one just under 10 a game, Trae Pemberton (9.1).
So mark the date of Jan. 5. That’s when Maryville visits USI. By the way, that’s two days after the Screaming Eagles open their GLVC schedule by hosting Missouri-St. Louis. By the time these two games are completed, USI will have a pretty good idea where it stands for the season, let alone in the conference.
A two-week layoff between basketball games can result in a dead shooting eye. At least, that’s how USI men’s coach Rodney Watson looks at it. His team is halfway through such a break, with its next game Saturday night at home against Notre Dame College out of Ohio. So the Eagles have been shooting and shooting and shooting. “When you play four games and then don’t play for two weeks, you lose that purposeful edge,” is how Watson describes the problem. Still, USI took Saturday and Sunday off. I figure that two-day break will have the team ready to go full speed by Monday.
Time off also helps teams recuperate from injuries. In USI’s case, the injuries are to sophomore forward Austin Davis (ankle), senior guard Kenyon Smith (lingering foot injury), senior guard Melvyn Little (lingering foot injury) and, of course, senior forward Keith DeWitt (surgery on left knee). Davis, Smith and even Little, I understand, probably will be ready to go Saturday.
One more thing unrelated to any of that: coach Rodney Watson really likes it when his players get into their schoolwork. Case in point is Orlando Rutledge, who I write about in my Monday column in print and online.
Watson said that last week, after Rutledge scored 15 points in USI’s win over Philander Smith in the final game of the Bill Joergens Memorial Classic, the junior forward went upstairs to the athletic office, sat down at a computer and worked on a paper that was due in one of his classes. Watson found out when he was driving back home to visit his family in southern Illinois and got a call from one of his student assistant coaches, Blake Woodard. Watson sounded excited, happy and in awe all at the same time when he told the story.
I’ll have a story on Keith DeWitt, the senior USI men’s basketball forward who’s been sidelined with a knee injury the past couple of weeks, in Sunday’s Courier & Press. He’s quite restless, understandably so since this is the first major injury he’s ever suffered. But USI has been winning without the man who scored 25 points in its season opener, and his return should make the Eagles even more formidable.
It’s gotten to the point where watching USI women’s basketball this season involves one particular expectation: Anna Hackert consistently grabbing rebounds off the offensive glass. It’s such a given that I don’t even pay much attention to it, which is wrong but not surprising. She had five offensive boards Thursday night in the Eagles’ 98-52 win over Mid-Continent University, finishing with 11 rebounds total. And it wasn’t anything special. Just expected. Maybe a player becomes truly great when you can take her performance for granted. Just remember: she’s only a sophomore.