Thursday, July 20, 2017

Baggett and Rider hopeful to take next step in MAAC this season

Kevin Baggett has guided Rider to tangible success in his first five years with Broncs, and is hopeful that his program can emerge from wide-open MAAC race to forge a run deep into March. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

For all the success Kevin Baggett has had in five years as head coach at Rider, he recognizes the biggest criticism he has received in his tenure at the reins of the Broncs.

Despite 85 wins and a pair of postseason appearances, definitely nothing to sneeze at for a program whose last NCAA Tournament berth came in 1994, he has yet to take Rider past the quarterfinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. With that said, though, the prevailing feeling in Lawrenceville is one of hope and tempered confidence as the Broncs replace four seniors from last season's 18-win unit.

"They know it's not really about winning games anymore," Baggett stated with regard to the higher expectations for Rider, who has traditionally remained in the top half of the conference more often than not since he replaced Tommy Dempsey in 2012. "It's about winning the league, it's about trying to win that MAAC tournament."

"Really, the biggest knock on me at this point is being able to get past the quarterfinal game," he admitted. "They know how adamant I am about taking the next step in this program, taking the next step in the tournament, and I think our guys are really focused this summer on getting better, and especially buying in and being a team. We've got a lot of new moving parts who I'm excited about. The league is interesting."

The Rider team that takes the floor this season, beginning November 10 against Hampton, will have a much different look than the group that fans had come to know over recent years. Gone are all-MAAC talents Jimmie Taylor and Kahlil Thomas, as well as swingman Xavier Lundy and big man Norville Carey, all of whom graduated. With sophomore point guard Stevie Jordan now entrenched as the leader in the backcourt, his fellow classmate Tyere Marshall will take on a bigger role in the lineup as he looks to build on the encouraging end to his rookie season that has his head coach optimistic about what lies ahead.

"He's one of those young men I'm really excited about," Baggett said of Marshall, gushing over the potential of the Philadelphia native. "He's growing, he's working hard in the weight room, having confidence in the way he finished down the stretch. Obviously, he's got some time to fill Kahlil's shoes, but he's excited about it and we're excited about him taking the next step and being a guy that's going to have to play more minutes down in the paint and working on his perimeter game too, not just being a one-dimensional player."

"The one thing I'm really excited about is he's growing up, he's embracing the fact that he knows that Kahlil is gone and Norville's gone," he elaborated. "Those are a lot of points, a lot of rebounds that he's going to have to make up. He's willing to take up the challenge and I'm excited for him. He's got a huge upside, and I just think the sky's the limit for him. He's got a great way about him, on and off the court."

Jordan and Marshall headline a Rider team that gets frontcourt reinforcement from Devine Eke and Frederick Scott, who sat out last season after transferring from Maine and DePaul, respectively. In the backcourt, Kealen Washington-Ives and Anthony Durham return for their junior seasons while Jordan Allen, a partial qualifier last season, makes his long-awaited arrival to a guard stable that will need to replace one of the program's best shooters in Taylor.

"Jordan Allen is a young man that can really shoot it," said Baggett of the 6-foot-3 native of Delaware. "Frederick Scott can play the two, three, or four; and maybe at times when we go small, might even end up at the five a little bit. Devine Eke averaged ten points and five rebounds at Maine, and he's done a good job this past year getting himself better, developing his perimeter game."

The pieces are certainly in place for Rider to make an impact, and with the offensive firepower displayed at the end of last season, the Broncs finally have a complement to a defense that has consistently been among the MAAC's strongest when looked at from a points-per-possession perspective. The key, however, is consistency, and such a concern has been imperative for Baggett to address this offseason.

"I'm just looking for our guys to just get better every day, come together as a team, play as one," he said. "This roster is set for some years here. We don't have a senior on our roster. I need some guys to step up and be leaders, being that we lost a lot of leadership. I'm just looking for a complete team to where night in and night out, different guys are going to be guys who contribute and not be one or two individuals. I want to go back to playing a number of guys, at least nine or ten guys a game, getting up and down, pressing. At the end of the day, I'm still trying to figure out the league, but we've just got to worry about ourselves. Good things happen when you do those things and you play as a team."

Fairfield releases non-conference schedule

Sydney Johnson and Fairfield seek third straight postseason appearance this season, which begins with home game against Penn. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

In search of a third consecutive trip to the postseason, which would be the fifth under head coach Sydney Johnson as he begins his seventh season at the helm of Fairfield University, the Stags took the first step toward their long-term goal Wednesday afternoon with the release of their non-conference schedule.

"This could be one of the most difficult non-conference schedules that Fairfield has faced in some time," Johnson said in a statement Wednesday. "With five 20-win teams on the schedule, our team will be challenged every time they take the court."

Beginning first with a trip to Italy this August and continuing with an exhibition tilt against the University of Bridgeport on November 3, the Stags will officially tip off the 2017-18 season with a pair of home games, welcoming the University of Pennsylvania to Webster Bank Arena on November 11 before hosting former Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference rival Loyola (Md.); now a member of the Patriot League, on November 14.

Fairfield's marquee non-league matchup awaits four days later, when Purdue will entertain the Stags on November 18 at Mackey Arena. The Boilermakers must replace All-American forward Caleb Swanigan, but are nonetheless one of the more formidable foes on the ledger for a Stags team that boasts the likely MAAC Preseason Player of the Year in senior guard Tyler Nelson. Following the Thanksgiving holiday, Fairfield concludes the month of November by taking part in a multi-team tournament at Wright State University. The Stags will face three teams at the Nutter Center in Dayton, beginning with Jacksonville on November 24 before meeting Gardner-Webb the next day and concluding the event against the host Raiders on November 26.

The month of December begins with a trek to Staten Island for Fairfield, who will face Wagner on the road for a second straight season on December 1. The Seahawks are one of two Northeast Conference opponents for the Stags this season. The third of four straight road games takes place on December 6, when Fairfield squares off with Houston, and the journey away from home concludes on December 10 against LIU Brooklyn.

After a brief hiatus for final exams, the Stags contest both of their final tuneups before MAAC play at home, welcoming Old Dominion to their on-campus court at Alumni Hall on December 17, with New Hampshire making their way to Webster Bank Arena on December 22. Fairfield's MAAC schedule will be released at a later date.

2017-18 Fairfield Non-Conference Schedule (all times TBD)
Friday, November 3: vs. Bridgeport (exhibition)

Saturday, November 11: vs. Penn

Tuesday, November 14: vs. Loyola (Md.)

Saturday, November 18: at Purdue

Friday, November 24: vs. Jacksonville (Wright State University)

Saturday, November 25: vs. Gardner-Webb (Wright State University)

Sunday, November 26: at Wright State

Friday, December 1: at Wagner

Wednesday, December 6: at Houston

Sunday, December 10: at LIU Brooklyn

Sunday, December 17: vs. Old Dominion (George Bisacca Court at Alumni Hall)

Friday, December 22: vs. New Hampshire

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Trip to Paradise Jam highlights Dunleavy's first non-conference schedule at Quinnipiac

Baker Dunleavy's first season at Quinnipiac features mounds of opportunities for Bobcats' new head coach to build competitive team heading into MAAC play. (Photo by Quinnipiac University Athletics)

With a new coach comes new challenges, and Quinnipiac's non-conference schedule provided a glimpse of the first hurdles the Bobcats will attempt to overcome this season under Baker Dunleavy, who replaced Tom Moore this past March.

Quinnipiac released the first half of its 2017-18 slate Wednesday morning, and it begins on Saturday, November 11, when Dunleavy and the Bobcats play host to Dartmouth College in a 2 p.m. tipoff. The meeting with the Big Green is the first between the two schools since the 2010-11 season, when the Bobcats went into New Hampshire and left with a 69-52 victory. Two days later, another Ivy League school makes its way to the TD Bank Sports Center, as Brown visits Hamden for a 7 p.m. soiree on November 13.

Quinnipiac's return to the Paradise Jam, an event in which they last participated during the 2012-13 season, commences on November 17 as the Bobcats will face Colorado in the opening round of the Virgin Islands tournament. From there, a meeting with either Drake or Wake Forest, contingent on the result of the Colorado game, awaits the following day, with a final game in the tournament taking place November 20 against either Drexel, Houston, Liberty, or Mercer. The Bobcats conclude the month of November with their final two home games before Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play begins, hosting Maine on November 26 before Massachusetts comes to the Nutmeg State for a 7 p.m. tip on November 29.

The Bobcats open December with a trip to Pennsylvania, where Lafayette will welcome them to the Kirby Sports Center on December 2. Two days later, the road trip ensues with a journey to Levien Gymnasium for a December 4 battle against Columbia, with a third game in six days emanating from the University of Hartford on December 7. Following a break for final exams, Quinnipiac visits Drexel for a potential second meeting with the Dragons on December 18, with the final non-league contest of the season tipping off on December 21 in Burlington against reigning America East Conference champion Vermont.

Quinnipiac's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference schedule will be released at a later date.

2017-18 Quinnipiac Non-Conference Schedule
Saturday, November 11: vs. Dartmouth, 2 p.m.

Monday, November 13: vs. Brown, 7 p.m.

Friday, November 17: vs. Colorado, 6:30 p.m. (Paradise Jam)

Saturday, November 18: vs. Drake or Wake Forest, TBD (Paradise Jam)

Monday, November 20: vs. Drexel, Houston, Liberty, or Mercer, TBD (Paradise Jam)

Sunday, November 26: vs. Maine, 2 p.m.

Wednesday, November 29: vs. Massachusetts, 7 p.m.

Saturday, December 2: at Lafayette, 2 p.m.

Monday, December 4: at Columbia, 7 p.m.

Wednesday, December 7: at Hartford, 7 p.m.

Monday, December 18: at Drexel, 7 p.m.

Wednesday, December 21: at Vermont, 7 p.m.

Liberty's newfound offensive synergy carries them to victory over Connecticut

Bria Hartley sets up offensive attack during Liberty's win over Connecticut Wednesday morning. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- Shooting cures a multiple of ailments.

When the stroke is clean and the ball finds the bottom of the net, good things happen. Screens are set with more precision. The offense flows, and as a bonus, there is a bounce in the step on the defensive end.
The New York Liberty saw that happen as they dismantled Washington on Sunday. Wednesday morning, there was a carryover. The Liberty ran and hid from the first-place Connecticut Sun, a team that defeated them on the same Madison Square Garden floor a few weeks earlier. The 96-80 triumph put the Liberty at 10-9, while the Sun fell to 12-9. Of greater significance, it was a second straight victory and scintillating offensive performance for New York.

“This is a structure that is good for us,” head coach Bill Laimbeer said following the game. “We are pushing the pace, getting easy baskets; and as a team, we are enjoying this. We just want to keep it going.”
The Liberty shot an effective field goal percentage of 55, including 9-of-21 on three-pointers. Tina Charles led the way with 28 points and 17 rebounds, both game highs. Shavonte Zellous added 16 points and Bria Hartley 10 markers. Epiphanny Prince tallied nine points while Sugar Rodgers and Kiah Stokes added eight apiece in relief, just the offensive recipe Laimbeer had been searching for. Charles is New York's marquee player, and from day one, the Liberty mentor impressed on getting her consistent help. Today, it was present.

All the offensive talk these past few days has not come in the way of job one, which is defense. At halftime, the Liberty held a four-point lead.

“We challenged them to come out and respond,” Laimbeer said. “They did in a big way.”

New York outscored the Sun by 16 in the third quarter, virtually sealing the verdict. Jonquel Jones led the Sun with 14 points. Alyssa Thomas, effective in Connecticut’s win here in late June, was held to a quiet 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting.

“We missed 44 shots,” Sun coach Kurt Miller  said. “In the WNBA, you will have games like this. I think the big difference was offensive rebounding. They did a job on us in that area.”

Connecticut is a good rebounding club. On this day, the Liberty owned a 44-16 percent edge in offensive rebounding rate, translating into a 24-13 edge in second chance points.

“We know Connecticut rebounds, so it was a priority for us to limit them, especially on the offensive boards,” Charles said. “Each game, we have goals, that was our main one today. Everyone did a great job hitting the boards and getting to those loose balls.”

Charles feels these last two games have altered the Liberty mindset.

“Everyone is playing their game,” she said. “As a team, we are playing to our strengths.”

The all-star break is now upon the Liberty, with the first game off the break being a Tuesday night date at Minnesota.

“The break is a good time step away to get mentally refreshed for a few days and remember our good habits for when we come back," Charles said. “And we come back facing a big challenge. I know we all look forward to it.”

Good shooting, and rebounding, can do that.

Liberty 96, Sun 80: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

NEW YORK -- Teams will employ an overall style of play. It could be half court, full court or strict post-up on defense.

If it is the latter, there is a good chance that said team is not in the NBA. Game to game, teams will adjust their system to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. Breaking it down further, you have adjustments. Adjustments can be general as applied to the overall style of play. During the game, they are numerous, some even on the fly as a different play or defense is called based on what the opposing team is doing.
For the New York Liberty, an adjustment was made following last Friday’s listless loss to the Chicago Sky. Head coach Bill Laimbeer decided his offense was stagnating, in search of some easy baskets. Over the weekend, the Liberty became a changed team. First was an 85-55 victory over Washington Mystics. A few days later, on a humid morning, the Liberty kept the offensive heat up, defeating the first-place Connecticut Sun by a 96-80 count.
For the Liberty, that is two straight victories. The all-star break gives a few days off. Needless to say, New York needed this little spurt, not just to get over .500 at 10-9. Of greater importance, the Liberty not only changed their offensive approach, but the adjustment proved to be an altering of their attitude and approach. For Laimbeer and the Liberty, this proved to be a much-needed adjustment, employed at a most opportune time.

Midtown Manhattan on a summer Wednesday morning:
Here is one Penn Station entrance not affected by construction, at least not yet:
Madison Square Garden, 30 minutes before tipoff:
The press room coffee, always necessary for morning tipoffs:
video
Moments before the national anthem:
The Liberty initiating their offense, as seen from the opposite baseline:
Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer, perhaps in deep thought:
A younger group of patrons supporting the Liberty:
Bill Laimbeer addresses the media after the win:

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Carlene Mitchell stays true to humble roots in her first professional go-round

In her first professional journey, Carlene Mitchell has not let the brighter lights and bigger stage get to her head, remaining focused on player-first mentality. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

She is in her first year in the pro game, but is far from a rookie.

Carlene Mitchell, an assistant coach with the Chicago Sky, has experienced the game as a junior College and Division I player, a Division I assistant; and later head coach, all before joining the Sky. She has a youthfulness and enthusiasm her players can admire, yet she is a veteran with several distinguished mentors.

About an hour before the Sky faced the New York Liberty at Madison Square Garden last Friday, Mitchell spoke of one of her primary teachers in the game, C. Vivian Stringer, the Hall of Fame mentor whom she assisted for a decade through some of the best moments in Rutgers women’s basketball history.

“Coach Stringer emphasized life lessons,” Mitchell recounted. “She drove home the fact you should treat players as human beings. It is the person, not just the player. Do not forget the human side of it all. First and foremost, they are people.”

Mitchell’s tenure at Rutgers was a time when the Scarlet Knights were in the Big East. She continued to discuss the state of the conference today when the subject of in-state rival Seton Hall came up.   

“Tony Bozzella has done an outstanding job with that program,” Mitchell praised. “In fact, he has rebuilt several programs, and each time his priority has been the people side of it. He’s an excellent coach and outstanding with player relationships.”

Having spent ten years with Stringer, defense was also emphasized, leaving an impression on her coaching career.

“Yes, no doubt,” Mitchell said with a light-hearted laugh. “Vivian sold us on defense. But my college coach, Brian Agler; at Kansas State and now with the Los Angeles Sparks, was the very first to really emphasize how important defense is.”

Mitchell’s experiences have run the gamut as both a player and coach. She played for a junior college national champion at Trinity Valley Community College before moving on to Kansas State. Her experience as a college assistant, in addition to Rutgers, included stops at Oklahoma State, Western illinois and UMKC. Her most recent stop saw her move into the head coach’s  chair at UC-Santa Barbara. Her four years there were highlighted by the first, producing a Big West Conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance. That made Mitchell a finalist for the Maggie Dixon Rookie Coach of the Year award. With The Sky being her first stop in professional basketball, the question on the differences between college and the professional ranks was broached.

“In college, you are doing a lot of recruiting, and there is involvement in day-to-day things such as academic schedules and supervision,” she said. “Here, the focus is simply on the game. You have the opportunity to focus and address the most minute detail from an X-and-O standpoint.”

As much as the technical aspect of the game is stressed on this level, Mitchell cannot get away from the personal. About Cappie Pondexter, whom she coached at Rutgers, Mitchell said, “Cappie has become a wonderful woman, not just a player. She might be upset I told you this, but today she bought groceries and distributed them to the homeless in Central Park. That is who she is.”

The Sky, with a first-year head coach in Amber Stocks, Mitchell, and another first year assistant in Carla Morrow, is far from a team learning on the fly. On Friday, Chicago defeated the Liberty for a third straight win. Mitchell, attending to postgame duties in the Sky locker room, made sure to congratulate each Chicago player with a word of advice or encouragement as they exited.

For Carlene Mitchell, the professional game is a different challenge. The personal touch, though, still remains in place.

Big East women's basketball tempo-free review

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

DePaul and Creighton battled it out for superiority in the Big East, ultimately finishing in a dead heat. In the conference tournament, though, a new champion was crowned as Marquette captured their first Big East title; defeating Georgetown, Creighton and DePaul to capture the crown.

The Golden Eagles hosted the tournament, but it would be an injustice to suggest that that was the sole reason they cut down the nets. Playing at home helps, but fans do not win games. This was a team that played fast and aggressive, and attacked on both ends of the floor. In a three-game stretch, they did it well enough to emerge champions.   

The following figures are courtesy of Basketball State, and reflect the entire season, including non-conference, conference and postseason tournaments as well:

Records and Efficiency Margins
1) DePaul (+15, 16-2)
2) Marquette (+13, 13-5)
3) Creighton (+11, 16-2)
4) Georgetown (+3, 9-9)
5) St. John’s (+1, 11-7)
6) Villanova (0, 11-7)
T-7) Xavier (-3, 4-14)
T-7) Providence (-3, 4-14)
9) Seton Hall (-12, 4-14)
10) Butler (-14, 2-16)

Turnover Rate Leaders
1) Villanova (12 percent)
2) Marquette (14)
T-3) Georgetown (15)
T-3) DePaul (15)
T-3) Creighton (15)
The general thought the past few years is that women’s efficiency is not on a par with their male counterparts due to turnovers. The turnover rates of the five Big east leaders show that is far from the case. Among the nine teams in the conference, only two; Seton Hall and Butler, finished over a 20 percent rate, each checking in at 21 percent.  

Defensive Turnover Rate Leaders
1) Georgetown (21 percent)
T-2) DePaul (20)
T-2) St. John’s (20)
4) Seton Hall (19)
5) Butler (18)   
In the case of Seton Hall and Butler, it provides further evidence that their respective struggles were on the offensive end. The turnover rates alone suggest a defense that was active with the ability to disrupt opposing offenses.

Offensive Efficiency Leaders
1) Marquette (107)
2) DePaul (104)
3) Creighton (98)
4) Villanova (93)
5) Georgetown (91)

Defensive Efficiency Leaders
1) St. John’s (82)
2) Creighton (87)
T-3) DePaul (88)
T-3) Georgetown (88)
5) Xavier (91)
Marquette was not among the top five. The Golden Eagles tied Providence for seventh-best with a 94 defensive efficiency, not a bad figure at all and definitely an asset considering head coach Carolyn Kieger’s offense led the league with a figure of 107.

Fastest Pace
1) DePaul (77 possessions per game)
2) Marquette (74)
3) Seton Hall (73)
4) Georgetown (72)
5) Butler (70)
Getting out and playing fast was very much in vogue in the Big East. Even teams such as Seton Hall and Butler struggled, but still kept the foot on the accelerator.

Slowest Pace
1) Villanova (65 possessions per game)
T-2) Creighton (67)
T-2) Providence (67)
T-2) St. John’s (67)
A year ago, Providence was playing at a 72-possession pace. The Friars were a surprise among this group this season as well, with Jim Crowley making the move to the Ocean State after a highly successful run at St. Bonaventure.

Effective Field Goal Percentage Leaders
1) Marquette (51 percent)
2) DePaul (50)
T-3) Providence (48)
T-3) Creighton (48)
5) Seton Hall (46)

Big East Championship: Marquette 86, DePaul 78
There was not going to be any attempt on the part of coach Doug Bruno to slow down Marquette. As noted, his Blue Demons enjoy a fast-paced game, so the tempo would be accelerated and accelerated it was, as the game was played at a 77-possession pace.
Both teams shot 50 percent from three-point range, yet the difference was not in rate, but total. Marquette went 9-of-18, while DePaul had a slight edge in volume, shooting 13-of-26. The Blue Demons led with a significant 29-17 advantage in offensive rebounding percentage. Both teams also cared for the ball with turnover rates under 20 percent, with Marquette’s 17 percent figure narrowly outperformed by DePaul’s 16 percent rate.
The definitive difference in the Golden Eagles delighting the Al McGuire Center crowd lied within the arc. Marquette shot 20-of-40 on two-point field goals. DePaul, on the other hand, struggled, making just 16 of their 43 attempts.
Sophomore Natisha Hiedeman played the full 40 minutes and was most essential to the NCAA Tournament-clinching victory, scoring a game-high 28 points. Hiedeman shot 6-of-10 from long distance and was a perfect 10-of-10 at the foul line.

Usage Leaders
1) Jade Walker, St. John’s (30.6 percent of team possessions)
2) Kaela Hilaire, Seton Hall (29.2)
3) Allazia Blockton, Marquette (28.2)
4) Sarah Beal, Providence (27.9)
5) Deja Cage, DePaul (27.6)
6) JaQuan Jackson, Seton Hall (27.1)
7) Brianna Rollerson, Creighton (26.5)
8) Dionna White, Georgetown (26.4)
9) Raeshaun Gaffney, Xavier (26.3)
10) Dorothy Adomako, Georgetown (26.1)
Having two players from the same team with a high usage percentage bears closer study. For Georgetown, it was a case of multiple go-to players. Both Adomako and White contributed 22 percent each to their team’s points. That was good for third and fourth in the conference.

Seton Hall had Jackson eighth in the conference with 21.5 percent of the Pirate points, while Hilaire was 22nd-best at 15 percent. In their situation, head coach Tony Bozzella had two high usage players; one of whom a scorer, with a support cast that often struggled to maintain consistency as the season progressed.

Player Efficiency Leaders (using NBA/WNBA model)
1) Tori Schickel, Butler (21.1)
2) Erika Davenport, Marquette (17.6)
3) Brooke Schulte, DePaul (17.0)
4) Allazia Blockton, Marquette (16.7)
5) Faith Woodard, Georgetown (16.3)
6) Jacqui Grant, DePaul (15.6)
T-7) Alex Louin, Villanova (15.1)
T-7) Dionna White, Georgetown (15.1)
9) Natisha Hiedeman, Marquette (14.8)
10) Dorothy Adomako, Georgetown (13.4)
Schickel, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, was a lone bright spot for the struggling Bulldogs. She scored 25 percent of Butler’s points while grabbing 37 percent of their rebounds. Both marks paced the conference.

For Seton Hall, a team that struggled to gain offensive consistency, the old adage of there being no place like home was certainly the case, as the Pirates’ offensive efficiency was 14 points higher at historic Walsh Gymnasium than on the road, with a 94-80 disparity in the two figures.

Across the Hudson River, St. John’s was a team reliant upon its defense. Looking at the home and away splits of Joe Tartamella’s Red Storm, you can see the maintenance of an outstanding consistency in their 81 efficiency at Carnesecca Arena and a slightly higher 83 figure away from home. The Red Storm had their difficulty on the offensive end, but were consistent with a offensive efficiency of 90 on the road compared to 92 in Queens. Overall, St. John’s showed a 91 efficiency, tied with Providence for sixth.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Courtney Vandersloot key to clearer skies for Chicago

Courtney Vandersloot initiates Chicago's offense during win over Liberty Friday. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- One hour prior to game time, one group went about their business in quiet, stoic fashion. Assistant coaches led the drills. The head coach, even during an interview or two, kept his eyes on the proceedings on the court. The opposition on the other end went about their paces as well. The mood was noticeably different, as laughter, light chatter, and a relaxed attitude permeated.
   
The pregame warmup can offer a hint about a player or team, but rarely the full story. Friday night may have been the exception, however, as the relaxed and effective Chicago Sky defeated the New York Liberty, 78-68. It was the third straight victory for a Chicago team that started off losing 12 of their first 15 games. By contrast, the Liberty are playing any way but relaxed, dropping four of their last five as head coach Bill Laimbeer is left searching for answers, especially on the offensive end.
    
Chicago's resurgence, on the other hand, began in late June, when veteran lead guard Cappie Pondexter was lost due to a concussion. The keys to the offense were then handed to Courtney Vandersloot. The turnaround, unexpectedly, soon began.
    
“In this league, you do not get a lot of days off,” Vandersloot said following the win over the Liberty. “Between the San Antonio game (when Pondexter was injured) and Minnesota, we had a week without a game. That was huge, as it gave me a chance to settle in, get comfortable running the sets, learn the new ones and plays, and just get a lot of practice time in.”

With Vandersloot at the controls, the Sky triumphed over Minnesota, throttling the Lynx by the final of 100-76. The seven-year veteran set a career high in points with 26, while tying her personal best with 13 assists. That performance was followed up with another double-double in a win over Dallas. On the trip to New York, the Gonzaga product sustained her momentum with a solid 13-point, nine-assist evening. Numbers are one thing. More importantly, Vandersloot sees progress in the intangibles.

“I think we are maturing as a team,” she said. “It’s been evident the past three games. We are playing off each other and realize what each player can or cannot do.” The game against the Liberty saw Chicago withstand any challenges or runs by the home five. Poise was vital in securing a big road win.
    
The Sky are also getting significant contributions from Stefanie Dolson. The UConn product, obtained from Washington in the trade sending Elena Delle Donne to the Mystics, is a good low-post threat with the capability of stepping out and hitting the perimeter shot. Against the Liberty, Dolson tied another former UConn great Tina Charles on the scoreboard, matching the Liberty center with 23 points. Chicago will take a three-point shot if it is there. They do have the ability to hit it as well, as evidenced by shooting 40 percent from long range in the win Friday.

“Even on the fast break, if the three is there, we will shoot it,” Vandersloot said. “That’s just how the game in being played these days,” she added, with a trace of affinity for the Golden State Warriors in her tone.
    
Sky coach Amber Stocks said her team started the season with two point guards. Recent events point to Vandersloot as the primary option moving forward. As Stocks said, “Cappie is a dynamic guard and she is truly dynamic from the wing. She impacts the game from the wing.” Vandersloot is doing the same from the point with a solid running mate in the person of  Allie Quigley.

In the span of just one week, three straight wins have changed the outlook in the Windy City. They will be tested with four more consecutive road contests before returning home. The feeling, though, is one of a positive nature.

“We are playing at a higher level,” Vandersloot said. “I think there’s a lot this team can do.”