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VOL. 129 | NO. 21 | Friday, January 31, 2014

 

Transition to New League Difficult for U of M Women

By Don Wade

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On Jan. 14 at Elma Roane Fieldhouse, the University of Memphis women’s basketball team knocked off No. 23 Rutgers.

It was a nice win. Even a nourishing victory in some measure, given that it came inside the American Athletic Conference – a new, and decidedly tougher league than Conference USA.

Senior guard Devin Mack recalls that during timeouts down the stretch of that game, won by Memphis 74-73 in overtime, coach Melissa McFerrin kept telling the players to look at the clock, to look at how close they were to pulling this thing off.

Sophomore Ariel Hearn scored 18 points in Memphis’ 62-53 win over UCF Wednesday. It’s been an up-and-down season for the Tigers in the strong American Athletic Conference.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I think we competed even more the last five or six minutes,” Mack said. “We picked up the level of intensity and defense and pushed the ball and made some great plays and came out with the W.”

If you’re thinking this player and this team should be over that victory by now, you’d be right under normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances. The AAC is a new league, but it carries a familiar narrative:

Connecticut rules. UConn is ranked No. 1 and the defending national champion. It is the standard-bearer for women’s college basketball, having won eight national titles since the 1994-1995 season under coach Geno Auriemma.

In the same elite neighborhood, if not in the biggest house on the corner, is Louisville, which lost to UConn in the finals last year. Louisville is ranked fifth and has been to two national title games since the 2008-2009 season under coach Jeff Walz and, yeah, the other national championship game loss came to UConn, too.

So, here’s what happened to Memphis eight days after that big win over Rutgers. The Tigers went to UConn and took an 83-49 beating. Four days later, they went to Louisville and lost 88-61. So far this season they’ve gotten to play one game on the court at FedExForum. It was against UConn. They lost 90-49.

Ask McFerrin if life is better in the AAC, even with the challenge of four games against two Top 5 teams, and she doesn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely, it’s better,” she said. “The thing we have to guard with the players is our wins have to carry us a little further. Because as we take a loss to UConn or Louisville, the wins have to sustain you a little bit more emotionally.”

Those back-to-back losses at UConn and Louisville dropped the team to 10-10, 3-5 in the AAC. So with a home game on Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 29, against struggling UCF, the Tigers had a chance to go over .500 – before hitting the road to play Rutgers on Saturday, Feb. 1, for what the home team will view as a revenge game.

Memphis beat UCF, 62-53, but the game was a grind. A seven-point lead with about three minutes to play was but a three-point lead with less than two minutes to play. Shooting guard and leading scorer Ariel Hearn had to handle point guard duties because Breigha Wilder-Cochran was out with an injury.

Hearn (Arlington High School) is a sophomore, but clearly the most talented player the Tigers have. She didn’t shoot well this game. But she still scored 18 points and made her only 3-pointer of the day to give Memphis a six-point lead at about the one-minute mark, and then took a charge on UCF’s next possession.

Several minutes after the game, McFerrin was still talking to Hearn, explaining that there is so much more to helping your team than just making shots and living up to your 18 points-per game average.

“Not every player is willing to take a charge,” McFerrin said. “And Ariel took two today.”

Of course, taking a charge against UConn might put Hearn or one of her teammates in the ER.

“You’re playing against bigger, stronger, faster,” McFerrin said.

At 11-10, 4-5, Memphis is still alive for a fifth straight postseason bid (WNIT). But there is also the longer view to consider. Every step of success can have a positive impact on recruiting.

“There is a much greater disparity between the top 10 or 15 programs in the nation and No. 75 or 100 in women’s basketball than in men’s,” McFerrin said. “Some people attribute that to the reduction of scholarships for men’s basketball from 15 to 13. It really gave them an opportunity to disperse the talent.”

In the women’s game, scholarships stayed at 15. So you can guess which programs get the elite players – UConn, Notre Dame, Louisville. McFerrin believes they will “grow into” the AAC and compete for higher-level talent. Meanwhile, Hearn hopes the best local players see an opportunity at home.

“It would be a joy to me,” Hearn said, “for them to follow in my footsteps.”

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