Rockets open practice for 2011 seasonWritten by Jason Mack | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The UT women’s basketball team kicked off the 2011 season with its first official practice Oct. 5.
“It’s always fun to have the first official practice and be able to practice for more than 45 minutes,” senior guard Naama Shafir said. “I’m excited, I’m sure everybody else is excited and we’re ready to start.”
Shafir has been named All-Mid-American Conference in each of her first three seasons and started all 102 games. She led the Rockets last year with 15.3 points and 5.1 assists per game and was named Tournament MVP as the Rockets won the WNIT Championship. She was named a co-captain for her senior season.
“I don’t feel like this is my fourth year and I’m a senior, but time goes by fast,” Shafir said. “I’m ready to start this year.”
“I was excited for Naama to finally be named captain, because she’s been kind of a silent leader her whole career,” UT head coach Tricia Cullop said. “Everything she has done to this point has earned her the opportunity. All three of our seniors are going to give us great experiences. They all know what it takes to win. They were all a big part of our WNIT run. They are going to set the bar high, because they want to have a great senior year.”
Junior forward Lecretia Smith was named the other co-captain this offseason and is excited to be playing again after missing the WNIT Tournament.
“We had a long preseason, so we’re pumped to be back out here getting ready to go for the season,” Smith said. “I’m excited to be back out here in this practice uniform still doing things.”
Smith missed the WNIT after injuring her knee in a 61-55 loss to Eastern Michigan in the semifinals of the MAC Tournament on March 11. After averaging 6.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, Smith spent the tournament coaching from the bench.
“I couldn’t have been more proud of that kid,” Cullop said. “To be dealt the hand she was right before the WNIT and know how badly she wished she could be out there, I thought she handled that situation with grace. She really inspired her teammates from the sideline. It was like having another assistant coach. I was never more proud of a player and how they handled an adverse situation.”
Cullop said Smith’s handling of adversity is a big part of why she was named a captain.
“Her teammates really thought the world of her for giving up her heart even though inside she was dying because she wanted to be on the court,” Cullop said. “She is kind of the heart and soul. That kid will get on the floor and dive for loose balls, take charges or whatever it takes. You want somebody out there that is going to push the team in that way.”
Smith’s coaching and Shafir’s performance were key factors in winning the WNIT, but the co-captains have their eyes set on a MAC Tournament Championship this season.
“Last year was amazing the way we ended the year with a WNIT Championship,” Shafir said. “It is over, and we’re ready for this year to accomplish some new things and have a special year.”
Smith agreed with her co-captain that the team needs to keep looking forward.
“We have to keep going,” she said. “It’s something we can’t fall back on. People are going to want to see us fall back. We have a huge target on our back this year. We need to continue to work hard and do the dirty work.”
“It was an outstanding experience to be a part of the WNIT,” Cullop said. “We had a chance to grow our fan base and generate excitement for women’s basketball in our area. It was a chance to understand what it feels like to beat teams with a national name across the front of their jersey. We have to set our sights higher. We’re going to have to be a little more consistent. We can’t have those slip-up games we had last year that cost us an NCAA Tournament berth.”
The Rockets participated in scrimmages during a trip to Israel to visit Shafir. However, Inma Zanoguera, a freshman from Spain, and associate head coach Nitra Perry were unable to make the trip, so Oct. 5 was the first practice as a full team.
“Inma has done a terrific job of picking up things quickly,” Cullop said. “To have Nitra back, who’s a very integral part of our coaching staff, really helps me. As many eyes as you can have helping our players, you want them to have as much attention as possible so we pay attention to details. I can’t catch everything as the head coach. I’m very blessed to have a terrific staff.”
Along with four freshmen, Oct. 5 was also the first official practice for junior center Kyle Baumgartner and sophomore forward Brianna Jones, a Central Catholic graduate. Both players sat out last season after transferring from Akron and Illinois, respectively. Cullop said the addition of the transfers will allow UT to put bigger lineups on the court this season.
“There were times last season, especially toward the end, that we went a little smaller and countered the height,” Cullop said. “Now maybe we can go head-to-head with some bigger teams because we have the depth and the strength to battle.”
The Rockets host Ashland in an exhibition game on Nov. 5 at 1 p.m. at Savage Arena. The team opens the regular season at home Nov. 12 at 2 p.m. against Dayton.