Wednesday, March 1, 2000
by Will Stewart,

Big Win at Dayton

The Tech women’s basketball team hasn’t had many big victories this year – their January 25th road win over St. Joseph’s comes to mind, though little else does -- but you can definitely file last Sunday’s 68-63 win over Dayton in that category.

Wins are labeled as "big" for a number of reasons. This one was big because it gave the Hokies a third-place finish in the Atlantic 10 West, which from a competitive standpoint is much better than a fourth-place finish. It positions the Hokies against weaker teams to start the tournament and maximizes their chances at making the semifinals or the championship game. For an 18-9 team on the bubble of making the NCAA tournament, every win counts.

But it was more than tournament seedings that were at stake for the Hokies. Much more. It was gut-check time for a team that hasn’t responded well under pressure this year. Bonnie Henrickson and her Hokies are only too happy to report that this time, they passed with flying colors.

Three weeks ago, this team was languishing at 13-9 after getting destroyed on the road by Xavier, 68-46. At that time, they had lost 4 out of 5 games, and a promising 5-1 A-10 start had turned into a middling 6-5 record. A chance at first or second place in their division had been lost, and the Hokies knew they were already staring at a third seed at best, with Xavier and GW battling it out for the 1-2 seed.

To add insult to injury, Xavier left their starting five in the game with well under two minutes to go in a game they were running away with, as if to make some sort of point to Virginia Tech: Give it up. Your season is over.

Then, to add injury to insult, Tere Williams went down three games later with a knee injury that will keep her out through the A-10 tournament, and maybe beyond. To the struggling Hokies, it was a prime opportunity to quit.

They responded with a shaky 64-57 home win over La Salle last Thursday night, a victory that capped a modest four-game win streak and put their record at 17-9. But next up was a season-ending road game at Dayton, a team that had beaten the Hokies at home 69-65 on January 28th, a loss that started the cold streak that saw Tech slide from 12-5 to 13-9.

The Dayton game on Sunday was Tech’s first road game since Williams’s injury, and deep into the second half, the Hokies weren’t playing well. They were down 51-35 with 11:17 to go, and Dayton was threatening to run away with it.

Lo and behold, a Tech team that was trying to find itself suddenly did just that. Coming out of a timeout, the Hokies went on a remarkable 33-12 run to put the Flyers away. The Hokies were still down by 9 points, 63-54, with 4:03 to go, but from there, they body-slammed Dayton 14-0 for the win.

The Hokies’ final five points came on a Nicole Jones lay-up and a Sarah Hicks three-pointer, both with under a minute to go. The scores broke a 63-63 tie to give Tech a victory, and more importantly, a huge emotional lift.

When a player like Williams goes down, others have to step up and fill the void, and in this game, an eye-catching number pops off the stat sheet for the Hokies: 20 points by Nicole Jones, on 8-11 field goal shooting and 4-4 free throw shooting.

Jones, a promising freshman last year, has had a quiet sophomore season, often disappearing and not getting many shots. In one four-game stretch during January, she only scored 22 points total. Her season scoring average after the 20-point outburst against Dayton is 9.4 points, less than what many Tech women’s basketball observers thought it would be.

But against Dayton, Jones took control and asserted herself and delivered the type of performance that is sorely needed with Tere Williams out of the lineup. For Tech to get deep into the A-10 tournament, she will have to continue to play well.

Another key performance came from Sarah Hicks, who scored 13 points, made 2 of 3 three-pointers, and sealed the deal with a three-pointer with nine seconds to go that put the game out of reach.

Like Nicole Jones, Sarah Hicks hasn’t had the type of season that was necessary in order for the Hokies to win big games this year … until now. Hicks, Tech’s designated three-point gunner, has only been able to hit 26.9% of her three-pointers this year, including a chilly 23.5% in A-10 games.

But against Dayton, she was money, and there’s nothing like a dagger-to-the-heart pressure three-pointer to restore a shooter’s confidence. Her 13 points came in only 25 minutes of play.

Lastly, there’s Mollie Owings, who suddenly finds herself playing big minutes – 39 in the last two games, after only averaging ten minutes a game for most of the season. Her playing time has doubled lately, but her numbers have more than doubled.

If you put together Mollie’s line score from the last two games, she has played 39 minutes and has scored 14 points on 7-9 shooting. More importantly, she has limited her turnovers to just 2, which is a tough thing for a player who doesn’t see much playing time to do.

And when it came down to crunch time, she guarded Dayton’s unstoppable Christi Hester, and, well, stopped her.

All in all, Jones, Hicks, and Owings produced 39 points on 16-24 shooting. Their teammates scored 29 points on 12-31 shooting, and while Kim Seaver and Chrystal Starling had solid games with 7 and 12 points, respectively, Amy Wetzel had a subpar 8-point game on just 3-10 shooting.

None of which is meant to disparage the other players, of course. It’s simply a fact that in this huge game, Jones, Hicks, and Owings led the way. Next time, it will more than likely have to be someone else, like the aforementioned Wetzel and Starling. That’s what happens when the star (Williams) goes down – everyone else has to ratchet up their game.

From here, the Hokies will tip it off against the sad-sack 2-24 Rhode Island Rams in the first round of the A-10 Tournament on Friday. Rhode Island has seen a bizarre slew of player defections over the last couple of years pare their roster down to just six players, three of whom who are walk-ons. Their center recently played her 7th straight 40-minute game.

After that, it’s a second-round game against UMass, a team that Tech beat by 21 points at Cassell Coliseum two weeks ago.

If the Hokies can get by UMass, Tech will reach the 20-win plateau, and despite Coach Bonnie Henrickson’s belief that Tech needs to win the tournament to make the NCAA’s, I’m not so sure. Even a loss in the A-10 semi-finals would leave Tech with a 20-10 record, and given that the Hokies were a Sweet 16 team last year, maybe the NCAA seeding gods will smile down upon the Hokies.

The big liability for Tech will be their RPI rating, which currently stands at #54. And despite playing four teams that are in the top 25 of the RPI (Duke, Georgia, Virginia, and GW twice), Tech’s schedule strength is also relatively low, #56 in the country.

But before all those numbers will be hashed over by the NCAA selection committee, there are games to play. And without Williams, it’s going to take a total team effort to do well in those games. Who will step up next? We’ll find out starting on Friday.


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