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Same Faces Do Not Equal The Same Expectations: 2006-07 Liberty Women's Basketball Outlook
When Liberty University women's basketball fans step through the Vines Center doors and take their seats for the Nov. 11 season opener against Norfolk State, one of the few new things they will notice is the revamped paint design on the hardwood.
Eighth-year head coach Carey Green will suit up the same 14 players he did a season ago and will be assisted by the same coaching staff. That's not a bad thing, considering the fact that the 2005-06 Lady Flames won 25 games and captured their 10th-straight Big South championship.
Though the faces will be the same in 2006-07, Green, his staff and his team are seeking different results. "We need to guard ourselves against complacency," Green warned. "If we do the exact same thing as we did a year ago, we will get the exact same results. Our expectations are higher than that. Therefore, our players and staff have to realize that we will have to make some sacrifices and increase our discipline in order to achieve something different and even better than last year." The expectations around the conference for this Liberty squad are lofty as well. The Lady Flames were selected to win the Big South Conference title again this season by the conference coaches, sports information directors and media panel.
Eight players on the 2006-07 roster were a part of the 2004-05 Liberty team that advanced to the Sweet 16. This year's squad is hoping to return to that level and beyond after falling in the first round of last season's NCAA Tournament.
"Last year was a tremendous year," Green remarked. "We set a standard of excellence. However, we can't live in the past. We have to learn from it."
In order to prepare the Lady Flames for conference play and beyond, Green and his staff have crafted a difficult non-conference schedule. Liberty will meet at least six teams that advanced to postseason play last season (three NCAA, three WNIT). The Lady Flames may also get the opportunity to face defending national champion Maryland at the Dec. 29-30 Terrapin Classic.
"The purpose of these challenges is to prepare our team for not only conference play, but also for the opportunity to be successful at the next level, when that opportunity occurs," explained Green.
The players on the floor will all be familiar to Liberty fans. Green is hoping that Lady Flames enthusiasts see a version of his team that is a year older, a year stronger and a year wiser, though. "I'm excited to see how hard our players have worked over the offseason," Green noted. "We want to see our team mature and go further than they did last year."
The point guard position is important on any basketball team, regardless of the level of competition. Green feels no differently about the floor generals he will ask to lead his team this season in junior Allyson Fasnacht and senior Michelle Parker. "The contributions of Allyson and Michelle will be key factors in determining the success of our program this season," explained Green.
Fasnacht is coming off a season that saw her earn a spot on the first team All-Big South roster and garner the Big South Tournament MVP award. Although her statistics (7.4 ppg, 2.7 apg in 2005-06) are not outstanding, she has consistently gotten the job done for the Lady Flames. She has also earned the respect of the Big South Conference coaches and media, as shown by her inclusion on the 2006-07 Big South Preseason All-Conference team.
"Allyson has shown a tremendous amount of maturity during her first two years," said Green. "It's great to have that type of leadership coming from the point guard position. Her basketball IQ and understanding of the game are unsurpassed. She is a high achiever both on the floor and in the classroom."
Not only is Fasnacht a leader on the court, but the sports management major was also included on the Big South All-Academic team last year. Her efforts helped Liberty achieve the 14th-best GPA in the nation during the 2005-06 school year.
Parker, also slated to see considerable playing time at point guard, brings a different look to the Liberty lineup when she is on the floor as her playing style contrasts with that of Fasnacht. That should make it difficult for opponents to prepare to defend the Lady Flames. The senior averaged 3.4 ppg and 1.3 apg a season ago.
"Michelle brings a different outlook to our team when she's on the floor," observed Green. "She has great creativity and sees the floor very well. She finished last year pretty strong and it will be critical for her to have a good year this season."
Green will have a number of options at shooting guard, including one of his other seniors, Leslie Jones. While the Liberty team is built around rebounding and defense, ranking third in the nation in rebounding margin (+ 10.6) and points allowed (55.8 ppg) a season ago, Jones will provide some needed punch at the offensive end.
"Leslie is a tremendous offensive scoring threat," noted Green. "She's seasoned and is ready to provide leadership for our team. Her contributions will be invaluable."
Sophomore Megan Frazee was enjoying an exceptional rookie campaign before a knee injury ended her season prematurely. She averaged 18.5 ppg and pulled down 9.8 rpg while recording nine double-doubles in her 14 appearances. The Ohio native, who presents tremendous matchup problems with her size (6-3), also hit 52.8 percent (19 of 36) of her attempts from behind the three-point line. The promise she displayed during her freshman year was such that she is the 2006-07 Big South Conference Preseason Player of the Year.
"Megan has come back from her knee injury stronger and more determined than any player I've ever been around," remarked Green. "She creates nightmare matchup problems with her ability to play well at so many different positions. However, her greatest contributions are from her desire and character. As she continues to improve, the level of our success will increase."
Junior Courtney Watkins made 25 appearances in the Liberty starting lineup a year ago and led the Lady Flames in three-pointers made with 23. She will be counted on to spread out opposing defenses with her outside shooting ability again this season.
"It's always great to have a player like Courtney who has the ability to contribute in all areas at the highest level on your team," said Green of Watkins. "She has improved with her passing and three-point shooting and has always served as an anchor defensively."
Sophomore Rachel Hammond is looking to pick up where she left off in 2005-06 after making the Big South all-tournament team following a breakthrough performance at that event.
"Rachel is a very gifted athlete," Green observed. "She is an extremely good shooter and also has the ability to become a defensive stopper like Roli-Ann [Nikagbatse]. No one will surpass her intensity and desire to win. Rachel is also a 4.0 student in the classroom as well as a great student of the game."
Hammond's classmate, Alex Bream, also adds depth to the shooting guard spot. She played in 17 games as a freshman and made her first career start in a win over Charleston Southern.
"Alex made a tremendous team contribution throughout her freshman year," commented Green. "She will continue to contribute this season with her ability to maintain composure, her perimeter shooting and her excellent defensive positioning. Alex exemplifies the heart and soul of a Lady Flame in all areas."
As in the backcourt, Green has a pair of seniors, Karolina Piotrkiewicz and Jamie Feagin, to help lead his skilled set of post players. Piotrkiewicz led the Lady Flames with 245 rebounds a season ago and Green expects her to do so again during the 2006-07 year. The native of France, who made a team-high 28 starts last year, led the Big South Conference with 3.6 offensive rebounds per outing.
"Karolina led us in rebounding last year and we expect for her to lead us again this season," stated Green. "That is an emphasized, critical, important part of who we are. Due to how hard she's worked in the offseason, we're expecting her to become more involved at the offensive end with her abilities as a scorer, rebounder and a passer."
Feagin is another player on the Liberty roster who creates some matchup headaches. Though only 5-11, she is able to play effectively around the basket because of her exceptional athletic ability. A season ago, Feagin recorded a team-best .532 field goal percentage and was the Lady Flames' second-leading scorer off the bench (4.1 ppg).
"Jamie is the most talented athlete on our team, but has been affected by various injuries," observed Green. "She's coming off shoulder surgery and will be slowed at the start of the year as a result. Our expectations for her are to continue to contribute at the highest level."
Junior Roli-Ann Nikagbatse was the Big South Defensive Player of the Year last season and will be the centerpiece of Liberty's defensive philosophy again in 2006-07. She paced the Lady Flames with 44 steals a season ago, a figure that ranked 14th in the Big South Conference.
"It's great to have a defensive glove that will fit any hand available," quipped Green. "Roli-Ann's philosophy has always been geared towards defense. It's great to have that type of intensity and that desire to shut somebody down. She will also be counted on this year to improve her offensive efficiency."
Moriah Frazee, the second member of Liberty's sophomore triplets, started 27 times during her first season and captured Big South All-Freshman team honors. She ranked second among Big South freshmen with 5.3 rebounds per contest. Frazee earned the team's "most improved" award at the conclusion of last season and her progression has continued through the offseason.
"No one has worked any harder than Moriah since the season ended," explained Green. "She has worked very hard at establishing a post game. She can also shoot the three-pointer and has exceptional ball-handling skills. Moriah possesses great character qualities and a desire to win."
Molly Frazee will also be a featured part of the Liberty attack under the basket during her second year on campus. Like each of her sisters, she presents a diversified offensive arsenal, possessing the ability to score around the rim and from the perimeter.
"Molly is an extremely good three-point shooter and has great ball-handling skills," said Green. "However, her greatest contributions to the success of our team will come at the post position. I'm really excited to see how she will contribute this season."
Big things are also expected of 6-5 junior Egle Smigelskaite, the tallest player on the team.
"Egle has recovered fully from the knee injury that slowed her last year," Green noted. "Expectations are very high for her this season. She is a great shot blocker. She will be counted on to score inside and has a great basketball IQ."
Sophomore Rebecca Lightfoot provides more depth to the Liberty roster. She made seven appearances in the starting lineup as a freshman and looks to be a major contributor during her sophomore year too.
"Becca was a pleasant surprise last year considering her slow start due to health issues," commented Green. "She has a complete game and will be able to contribute in many areas. Becca is also the ultimate team player. She is willing to take on any role and leads by example. We're thankful to have a player like her who has such a passion for the team."
The Lady Flames will open their season earlier than ever, hosting Norfolk State in the season opener on Nov. 11. Liberty will then embark on a difficult stretch of its schedule, playing just three of its next 12 games at the Vines Center.
On Nov. 14, Liberty will battle in-state rival George Mason before returning home two nights later to host Columbia Union.
The Lady Flames will then begin a tough, three-game road trip around the Thanksgiving holiday, making stops at Virginia (Nov. 20), Binghamton (Nov. 25) and James Madison (Nov. 29). Those three teams went a combined 35-7 at home a season ago and Virginia and James Madison participated in the WNIT tournament.
Liberty returns home on Dec. 5 to face yet another test in Virginia Tech. The Lady Flames will be looking for their first-ever win against the Hokies, who won 21 games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last March.
George Washington, another team that won its first game at the Big Dance a season ago, hosts Liberty on Dec. 10. The Colonials were 23-9 during the 2005-06 season.
The Lady Flames will make their last appearance at home in 2006 on Dec. 16, facing Virginia Union. Liberty will then depart for a pair of tournaments.
The first of those two tournaments will see the Lady Flames fly to Cancun, Mexico for the Caribbean Classic. While the beaches will be tempting, Green will have to keep his players focused on the task at hand as Liberty meets a pair of 20-game winners from a season ago, Texas-Arlington (Dec. 19) and Pittsburgh (Dec. 20). Pitt was a semifinalist in the 2005-06 WNIT Tournament.
After breaking for Christmas, Liberty will regroup for the Maryland Terrapin Classic, hosted by the 2006 NCAA national champion Maryland team at the Comcast Center.
While it is labeled a classic, a champion will be crowned at the Dec. 29-30 event. Liberty will play Marist, a fellow NCAA Tournament participant a year ago, in one semifinal game and Maryland will battle UNC Greensboro in the nightcap. The winners of both contests will meet for the title the following evening.
The Lady Flames kick off the new year with a pair of home tilts. Liberty hosts American on Jan. 2, before wrapping up its non-conference slate with Longwood on Jan. 5.
Liberty's first three Big South games will be played away from Lynchburg. The Lady Flames will open conference play at Coastal Carolina on Jan. 13 and will remain in South Carolina to meet Charleston Southern two days later. On Jan. 20, Liberty will play at High Point, the site of the Lady Flames' only Big South setback in 2005-06.
The Lady Flames will play their first conference home game on Jan. 22 versus Winthrop. That will mark the start of a stretch in which Liberty will play seven out of nine games at the Vines Center. Liberty will face in-state rival Radford to end the month of January on the 27th.
February's schedule will open at UNC Asheville on Feb. 3. The Lady Flames will then have a quick turnaround before returning to the Vines Center to play Birmingham-Southern two nights later.
Liberty will begin its second trip through the Big South schedule with a February 10 home showdown against High Point. The Lady Flames will venture to Winthrop February 13, before returning home for their longest homestand of the year, three games.
That trio of games will be played against Coastal Carolina (Feb. 17), Charleston Southern (Feb. 19) and UNC Asheville (Feb. 24). The game against UNC Asheville will mark the last home game of the season as seniors Feagin, Jones, Parker and Piotrkiewicz will be recognized.
The regular season schedule concludes with two road contests. Liberty meets Birmingham-Southern on Feb. 26, before a short jaunt to Radford on March 3.
This year's Big South Women's Basketball Championship will be hosted by UNC Asheville as all seven contests will be played at the Justice Center. Action will begin on March 8 and the conference champion will be crowned March 10.