Liberty will tip off the 2016-17 women's basketball season Friday at 6 p.m., when Duke visits the Vines Center.
Carey Green has put together an impressive resume during his first 17 seasons coaching the Liberty women's basketball program, including 13 NCAA Tournament appearances, 403 victories and a 74.1 winning percentage. His coaching ability will be tested more than ever in 2016-17, however.
The 2015-16 Lady Flames enjoyed another successful season, going 20-13, finishing as the Big South runners-up and making a Postseason WNIT appearance. Ninety-one percent of the points scored last season have been lost to graduation and transfer, though, leaving behind an inexperienced squad.
This year's team features more newcomers (8) than returnees (7), and nearly half of the roster (7 of 15 players) consists of freshmen. The returning Lady Flames have started only five games in their collegiate careers.
Accordingly, Liberty will take on an unfamiliar underdog role in the Big South Conference in 2016-17. The Lady Flames were picked fourth in the preseason coaches poll, their lowest preseason ranking in 20 years.
When asked to assess his new-look team, Green responded, "We realize both what we've lost and what this new group of players brings to the program. Our specific strengths are length and speed. We have the ability to attack off the dribble and spread the defense with perimeter scoring threats. At the defensive end, we have the ability to switch and match up with positions 1 through 4.
"In addition to our players' natural gifts, they bring a lot of energy and interest in becoming the best they can possibly be. We have been getting good leadership, as well as commitment from all individuals from the team."
Green will learn a lot about his team right off the bat, as both Duke (Nov. 11) and James Madison (Nov. 15) visit the Vines Center during the opening week of the season.
The long-term hope is that the Lady Flames will gel in time for the 2017 Big South Women's Basketball Championship. Liberty will play host to the event for the first time since 1998, March 9-12 at the Vines Center.
Point Guard Experience-wise, junior Nene Johnson represents Liberty's top option at the point guard position this season. The 5-8 transfer from Eastern Florida State College brings "athleticism, experience and the ability to do everything a point guard is expected to do," according to Green. She led the 2015-16 Titans in scoring (14.3 ppg) and assists (6.0 apg).
The Lady Flames' other floor generals include 5-6 sophomore Tatyana Crowder and 5-7 freshman Iva Ilic. Crowder is one of the team captains, while Ilic hails from Koprivnica, Croatia.
Combo Due to the makeup of this year's team, Green is lumping the 2, 3 and 4 spots together into a new combo position group, including seven players. "All of these players will need to be able to attack and defend both on the perimeter and inside while being able to defend the 1, 2, 3 or 4 positions," Green explained.
The Lady Flames' lone senior, 6-0 Audrey Rettstatt, has played both inside and outside during her career. The team captain made three starts last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury. "Audrey is steadily recovering from her injury," Green noted. "She shoots the ball well and finishes well around the basket."
Liberty's other two returning combo players, 5-8 junior Sheana Vega and 5-8 sophomore Stephanie Patton, are the premier shooters on this year's team, according to Green. Vega, who is the final team captain, and Patton combined to make just six three-pointers in 2015-16, but have put in a lot of work on their respective shots during the off-season.
Three of the Lady Flames' options at this position are freshmen who Green calls mirrors of each other, in 5-11 Kierra Johnson-Graham (Atlanta, Ga.), 6-2 Ola Makurat (Sierakowice, Poland) and 6-0 Lela Sellers (Lakeville, Minn.). "Their strength is slashing to the basket off the dribble," Green stated. "But all three can also shoot from the perimeter and will cause matchup problems for defenders."
Kaila Ballard, a 5-11 freshman who has been enrolled at Liberty since January, rounds out Liberty's combo options. She scored over 1,500 points during three years at Gates County High School in Gatesville, N.C., but has been limited by a foot injury during much of her time with the Lady Flames thus far.
Post Graduated from last year's team are the "Big 3" of 6-4 Ashley Rininger, 6-5 Katelyn Adams and 6-6 Catherine Kearney, who will leave big shoes to fill in the post, both literally and figuratively.
Five players will take turns at the 5 spot in the lineup this season, including 6-2 redshirt junior Jordan Woods, 6-1 sophomore KK Barbour, 6-4 sophomore Molly Reagan, 6-3 redshirt freshman Kaitlyn Stovall and 6-1 freshman Keyen Green, a native of Philadelphia.
Barbour received the most playing time among the group last season and leads all current Lady Flames in career points (65) and rebounds (61). However, she is battling back from a knee injury as she enters her sophomore season.
"The offense will run through the posts this season," Green explained. "They will need to learn to be passers."
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