Women’s basketball team hosts the CAA tournament after season turnaround
The tables have turned in a great way for the Delaware women’s basketball team.
Although it took them a little while to find their rhythm after losing their first three CAA games, a stunning turnaround has brought them to an 11-7 conference record entering conference play. Not only so, but Delaware is hosting the CAA tournament, which started Wednesday at noon in the Bob Carpenter Center.
Delaware opens tournament play Thursday at 2:30 pm. against No. 4 Towson. Should the Blue Hens advance, they’d likely face the top-seeded James Madison Dukes Friday at 1 p.m. The championship game will be played Saturday at 1 p.m. The winner of the conference tournament moves on to the NCAA tournament.
Delaware finished 5-7 in the non-conference portion of its schedule to open the season. In their first three CAA games, which started Jan. 4, the Blue Hens were dominated, losing all three. The offense was non-existent, hitting season lows in shooting percentage against James Madison (25.4 percent) and Towson (19.2 percent).
The team scored a combined total of 131 points in those three games ㅡ the fewest ever since Delaware joined the CAA in the 2001-2002 season.
But then came a turnaround in which Delaware won 10 of their final 13 conference games. Delaware finished the regular season with only one loss against teams below them in the CAA standings.
“I’m just so proud of our players ㅡ we fight; there’s so much resilience in our group,” Delaware Head Coach Natasha Adair said. “This is a group that’s very hungry, [and] still has so much to play for.”
Injuries pile on
Before the season even began, Delaware’s centerpiece, Nicole Enabosi, suffered a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury during Nigerian national team practices. Enabosi, last season’s CAA Player of the Year, averaged a league-leading 18 points and 11.8 rebounds as a junior.
The complexion of Delaware’s season changed in an instant.
“Losing Nicole ーobviously it’s going to be a tough blow when it’s one of your best players, [and] it was a huge learning curve for us…but at the same time, every team goes through some type of adversity…and you just know that you have to overcome that regardless,” said junior guard Bailey Kargo.
“It was definitely a tough hit for us,” said junior forward Samone DeFreese. “But we knew that we had enough in our squad still to get it done.”
The loss of Enabosi forced a readjustment process, which was apparent in the team’s difficult start to the season.
“I think it wasn’t a one-answer thing,” DeFreese said. “It was like everyone needed to give a little more than they’ve given before, and we have newcomers that played a huge role this year ー they really didn’t fill the roles of just ordinary freshmen. They had to step up and play really big minutes that freshmen don’t typically usually get.”
To make matters worse, Delaware dealt with injuries through preseason and much of the early portion of the season. Injuries do more than make a player unable to participate, they make it challenging for the rest of the players to gel together.
During preseason, freshman Lolo Davenport tore her ACL and the team’s only two point guards at the time broke their noises. When the season began, Kargo faced a foot injury and DeFreese missed two weeks with a sprained ankle. Freshman Jasmine Dickey also broke her hand and couldn’t play in five games.
“The big thing was as we were trying to form [our] chemistry, it’s like, ‘who are we playing with?’” DeFreese said. “One day someone was in the mix, the next day someone else was. [And] that’s a big difference with how many players; you know we were down in numbers a lot through this season.”
With these players going in and out, flexibility was a requirement. Now with everyone but Enabosi and Davenport back, that flexibility is an asset.
“[But I think] we have a lot of versatile players who can play multiple positions, which I think makes us a threat on the court,” DeFreese said.
Although all of these challenges may seem like they would be incapacitating, DeFreese and Kargo pointed out some positive things that came out of it.
“I think Nicole was our biggest hit that dwelled but after that, I felt like once we knew we could overcome that, any obstacle we faced we could overcome,” DeFreese said. “So like those injuries throughout the seasonー it wasn’t devastating because they were expected because we had all been injured so many times, so it was like, “Oh you’re out? Alright who’s up ーwho’s next?’ It was like. ‘Okay, we don’t have time to dwell on this; we have to move forward and keep pushing,’ so I think that’s why we had a positive outlook. So whoever was injured, I think it was really big on them to still be vocal and be a leader off the court, which allowed the players who were able to play to keep going.”
“All of those injuries just brought us closer together,” Kargo said. “We acknowledged it in the locker room so many different times; we would be like, ‘We know this is happening right now; everyone’s acknowledging it, and we just gotta keep pushing.’”
The Blue Hens won their first conference game against Hofstra on Jan. 18, where the team significantly stepped up both offensively and defensively, and over doubled their shooting percentage from their disastrous Towson game.
Their game against UNCW on Jan. 25, a 65-53 upset fueled by a then career-high 26 points from DeFreese, marked the start of a four-game winning streak. The Blue Hens didn’t look back, outscoring opponents by almost eight points on average in their final dozen games.
For the full season, that scoring margin would only fall behind James Madison and Drexel — teams that combined to lose only five conference games.
“I think it was a matter of following through with [those] game plans,” DeFreese explained. “Just understanding that like you can’t fall short on the little fundamentals which we were doing earlier in the season, and…that was a big part of some of our losses, just falling short, or key plays that were big that I would say are almost rookie mistakes, that we kind of eliminated throughout the end of the season.”
Another valuable piece of their foundation has been leadership and maturity, especially with older players setting an example for the newer ones.
“We have four of the same starting five as we did last year,” DeFreese said. “At the beginning of [this] season, our starting five changed almost every game. And then I think once our older leaders were kind of sound in their prep and their game and mental stability, then the whole team followed.”
“And that’s really been the game plan the entire time, and I think as the season progressed…that has been the difference,” Kargo added.
Delaware and Towson split their season series. Towson defeated Delaware, 56-48, in Newark on Jan. 6 and Delaware beat Towson, 70-57, in Towson on March 7.
In terms of their plans for round three in the tournament, DeFreese kept it simple.
“I think we’re taking it one day at a time,” she said. “Our prep doesn’t change; we’re not going to get to the tournament and change what we’ve been doing, because obviously we’ve been pretty successful in what we’ve been doing, so I think it’s just about making some little differences. Everyone knows how everyone plays now so I think it’s just [to be] more certain with your screens and attacking the basket and fundamentals. Those are going to be key.”
Through everything the team has been through, their previous obstacles have done just about everything except discourage and deter them.
“We talk a lot as a group; this team has just bonded through every part of adversity…we talked about how at the end of adversity, there is something great to come out of it,” Adair said. “We haven’t done it with individuals; we’ve done it as a unit. At the end of the day we want to represent Delaware and put ourselves in the best place to compete to win. I couldn’t be more proud of this group and just really excited about where our mindset is.”