Already this season the American University women’s basketball team has played before its largest-ever crowd at Bender Arena and gotten off to its quickest-ever start in the Patriot League.
After defeating Holy Cross Saturday, AU sits tied atop the Patriot League with a record of 11-1. Despite its success, the Eagles know one more monumental first must fall before they can label the 2009–2010 season truly historic.
“It’s only natural for us to be excited that the [NCAA] Tournament is a real possibility this year,” said junior forward Liz Leer, who scored a career-high 27 points before a record 1,291 fans at Bender Arena Feb. 13 in a win over Colgate. “We feel like this is the year to do it, but we also know that the Patriot League is tough and anyone can win on any given day.”
That’s a lesson AU learned the hard way last year when it entered the conference tournament as the second seed, but lost in the first round. It was a bitter defeat, but rather than let it drive them apart, the team used it as motivation and a unifying force.
“I think our team understands that there’s a road you have to travel in order to get to the [NCAAs],” said Coach Matt Corkery. “No. 1, you have to perform consistently at a certain level. You prove to yourself that you can do that through the regular season. You take one game at a time, then you try to put your best performance forward. Eventually, the next game could be an opportunity to go to the tournament. You really can’t look too far down the road.”
AU has surged to an 18-8 record largely on the basis of a team-first attitude off the court that has translated to its play on it. While junior Michelle Kirk is the leading scorer and Leer leads in blocks and is second in points, Corkery points to other components as being just as important to AU’s overall success.
“Ohemaa Nyanin is a critical piece of the puzzle for us,” he said. “She’s leading the conference in offensive rebounding and is second in total rebounding while playing only 20 to 22 minutes a game. That’s pretty amazing. She anchors our interior defense, gives us extra possessions by getting on the offensive glass. She’s the ultimate team player on and off the court. She’s the glue that holds it all together.”
When AU needs a key stop or bucket, sophomore Raven Harris often plays a central role. She leads the team in both steals and assists.
“She has done a really nice job of controlling the tempo of the game, and she’s also taking good care of the ball,” Corkery said. “She gets us into our offense; she sets up the players that we want to create shots. She does a really good job of managing our team.”
It’s Corkery’s job to manage expectations and sharpen his team’s focus, not an easy task when everything seems to be so ripe for the picking.
“The concept of our program having never been to the NCAAs, that really doesn’t matter,” he said. “For us it’s about this year’s team and what they have an opportunity to accomplish. It’s really about those 11 players in the locker room and what they can do together as a unit. That’s our focus, that’s where our concentration lies. That’s really what we can control.”
In a season already packed full of firsts, do a few more loom on the horizon?