Feb. 6, 2006
WASHINGTON - Losing six seniors to graduation and returning just one starter usually makes coaches use words like "rebuilding" to describe the upcoming season. In a recent interview with AUEagles.com, head women's basketball coach Melissa McFerrin did not use any of those words. In appraising her team's performance through the halfway point of the Patriot League season, the second-year AU coach was optimistic. The team has five freshmen averaging above 20 minutes a game that compliment senior guard Tala Hadavi - who's really in only her second full year playing - and upperclassmen Tara Williams and injured forward Abby Lipskis. After some bumps in the road early on, the Eagles are 3-3 in their last six games. The most telling stat might be Saturday's 75-68 win over Lehigh on the road, reversing a 60-41 loss earlier this year at home. McFerrin sat down with AUEagles.com before the Lehigh game, here's what she had to say about the year so far and the upcoming schedule.
AUEagles.com: How would you assess the first half of the Patriot League season given the injuries and given the reliance on the freshman?
Melissa McFerrin: Well I think the first half we have been a little erratic. I think there have been some times where we've shown a really strong defensive presence. There have been times we've shown really an absence of defensive presence. And I would say the same thing on offense. I think we're learning to play at tempo which I think is the best way for this team to play. And that probably is the one thing we've been the most consistent in. I think the first weekend was a real learning experience for us. We were juggling line-ups a little bit with some of our injuries. But if we could learn to play at tempo and if we could solidify our defense a little bit more I think we will go into the second half feeling pretty good about our chances to improve upon our first round record of 2-5.
AUEagles.com: A lot of these games have been close for 30 minutes, if you take out a three minute stretch or a five minute stretch, or at halftime its tied, etc. How much do you think this team can compete at the top of the league?
MM: I think we can get significantly better if we get healthy. Nicole Ryan being out for the last seven weeks has really hurt us from an offensive standpoint and even from a defensive standpoint because she gives us minutes where our other players can get some rest. Fatigue has been an issue for us on particularly on the defensive end of the floor. It may not be true fatigue but its mental fatigue with our young players and that has played a difference. Abby Lipskis still is nursing her back a little bit. I think that those two players could have been the difference at Holy Cross, could have been the difference at a Navy game, could have been a significant difference in the Army game. So I think that those are three games that we lost that we'll have a better opportunity to compete. I think Bucknell right now is the best team in our conference and that will be a true challenge for us at their place. Lehigh is a team we should be able to compete against. Hopefully we'll have Nicole a little bit this weekend we probably won't have Abby. So we are still dealing with the health issue. The youth that we have on our team right now, those young kids are learning a lot. They aren't able to learn enough quickly enough without also having to deal with playing 28-40 minutes. That's where we are right now. We don't have enough depth to get enough rest to minimize some of the mistakes we are making right now. But we are just going to keep working at it. I think that's the bottom line. We tell our kids everyday. What we can't do is walk in that gym and throw up a white flag, we have to come to work everyday and hopefully some point in time we can get healthy and that will make a difference because we're better and we'll be more rested.
AUEagles.com: One of the storylines of the year other than the injuries is the emergence of the freshman as real keys to the offense, keys to the defense and keys to rebounding. How optimistic are you about their further development over the course of the season?
MM: You can only learn so much so quickly. While they are learning a tremendous amount, there is a cap on how much they can learn in one season. The good thing is they are getting to learn on the floor as opposed to sitting on the bench and watching. I think each one of our freshmen at different times has been a significant factor in a game and collectively they are a significant factor regardless. Sahar Nusseibeh and Tish Curry have both been consistent on the boards. Sahar is now becoming a huge factor on the boards. Those two kids will be significant contributors in that area throughout their entire careers. Sahar now has learned how to take some of those offensive rebounds and turn them into points. Sahar has also learned to score on the block a little bit and is good at finishing around the basket. Pam Stanfield is the reason people don't press us. When you've got a team as young as ours, typically you see a lot of pressure from the tipoff. She's shown her impact on this team and league immediately. Talicia Jackson is our most reliable defender behind Tara Williams. She has also learned how to put up the three a little bit, but her value to us is most definitely on the defensive end. They are a very tight group.
AUEagles.com: The team has a whole group of youngsters and the only starting senior you have is Tala Hadavi, but she is really in just her second year - after transferring and getting injured nine games into the 2004-05 season.
MM: I think early in the year I put too much pressure on Tala to be a leader on this team. She's still a youngster in terms of playing time. As I've eased that responsibility, she's flourished. When we can get Pam on the floor, she's flourished. There's no question she is one of the best guards in the league. She gives us a deep threat. She gives us a transition presence and she's putting the ball on the floor better than she ever has. Now she's gotten more confidence to put the ball on the floor and get to the foul line. I think she's learning that she has a few more weapons in her bag than she was showing early in the season. She's going to be a reliable scorer for us. Sahar is a more reliable scorer and gives us that inside outside presence. We expect an all around game from Tala. We don't expect her to just shoot 3's. We don't expect her to just defend. We expect her to play the whole game. She's been rebounding more. I think she is showing herself as an all around player. I've talked with both Tala and Nicole Ryan and its like you can't be too impatient. Yes I want you ready the day practice starts. Yes I want you ready to go the first game but realistically it's going to be the first of January until you guys really find yourselves, and I think Tala has. Nicole has had kind of a setback, and she may not find herself into really late in this year, but hopefully she will do that and carry some confidence into the summer.
AUEagles.com: What do you see Nicole bringing to the team when she comes back?
MM: Right now I think it has to be the added depth. What we hope to get from her is what she was giving us when she came out of the Howard game. That was 10 points a game, that was solid defense, that was someone that we could call plays for, for a reliable scorer. That's a little ambitious for right now but over the course of the next 6 or 7 games we hope she can get back to that player. What she will give us right now is more depth and more rest for those players who are having to play with fatigue. We just want her to be healthy. So I don't want to be too ambitious but I don't want to limit what she might do yet this year. She can get through four or five games, get her wheels under her, you know, she might be in a position where she can be a very reliable defender and get her 8 or 10 points per game in limited minutes. So that's what we hope she can do, I don't expect her to do that this week or maybe next week but hopefully she can do that when we get later in the conference.
AUEagles.com: How have your goals changed or shifted towards the second half the year? What do you see the team doing building on this year next year, etc.?
MM: I think we still have to look at this as a year where we are putting building blocks in place. You can't suffer the loss of six seniors and have eight players missing from your team a year ago and think that everything is going to be absolutely peachy the next year. This is year two of a big picture project. We have to remind our players of that. However, we were picked to finish fifth in the Patriot League, our goal was not to finish that low in the Patriot League. We have yet to see where we can finish in the Patriot League, but we need to have a strong second half. I tell my freshman now, "You are not freshman anymore. You have had enough playing time to be second semester sophomores." So we need to a steep incline of improvement this year. Realistically where can we finish in the Patriot League? I think there is a very tight race between four to eight. A lot is going to be determined in the next 3 weeks to see who is going to be what. We need to be very competitive in that race, and that each game is going to be competitive. There will be a time when we will be competing for a Patriot League championship and need to take the same approach. So we are going to try to learn that lesson even though we may not right now be competing for a championship. We need to lay our foundation down and set our sights on some teams that are ahead of us and compete in whatever race we are in right now. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that there is a big picture to this. Our goals have not changed, they may not be in place for us to be a PL contender this year, but that still is the vision of this program. We have to understand that when we go to practice everyday, it still has an impact on us being able to do that.
AUEagles.com: A lot of people don't know about transfer Liz Hayes. What does she bring in practice, what do you see from her potentially next year as a surprise player?
MM: First of all Liz is a very competitive player. She brings that to practice every day. I never have to say a word to Liz about her practice habits. And this is a tough year for kids sitting out seeing they are not going to play. It is really easy to walk in the gym and want to take a day off. Liz does not do that. Next year Liz will immediately give us a deep three point threat, which is good for us this year in practice and it will be good for us next year with the loss of Tala. We shouldn't miss a beat next year. Obviously losing Tala will be a big loss for us but we have got Liz kind of waiting in the wings to do a lot of the same things that Tala can do. She is a reliable 3 point threat and she can put the ball on the floor, and is a very reliable defender. I can't rush this year along, because we still have things to accomplish this year but we are anxious to have Liz on the floor. I tell her everyday that I'm happy she is there at practice and every game day I curse at her because she is not there. It's our little joke. It's tough to see her at practice every day and not be able to put her on the floor during games.
[Editor's note: Led by Hadavi's career-high 30 points, McFerrin's Eagles won their first game of the second half of the year 75-68 over Lehigh. They face PL first-place Bucknell tomorrow on the road at 7 p.m.)