By Mark Brown
Cincinnati Herald Contributor
In the nine year tenure of Bearcat women’s basketball coach Jamelle Elliott it’s a fair assessment; life as a player and assistant coach for the powerhouse UConn Huskies, and life as the head coach for the Cincinnati Bearcats have gone in opposing directions.
As a four-year player, and twelve-year assistant at UConn, Elliott enjoyed a ride of endless victories that are synonymous with women’s basketball in Storrs, Connecticut– including 6 national championships— 1 as a player and 5 as an assistant coach. Three of which the team went undefeated (1995, 2002, 2009). But the winning ways of the UConn program have proven non- transferable at Cincinnati.
To be fair the reality of leaving a dominant UConn dynasty would ring quite loud in the ears of Elliott—as the best players in the nation were not lining up to come play for her at Cincinnati—as many have, and continue to do, for legendary UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. But even with Auriemma’s ability to recruit, Elliott sees, and respects her mentor’s accomplishments. “I’m in awe of him (Auriemma) even more,” says Elliott, on the success he’s had at UConn. “The fact that he’s been able to do what he’s done since ’91 and be on the top of his game for so long. It’s hard to build a program.”
At Cincinnati, Elliott would have to face the struggles of building a solid Bearcat team from scratch—oftentimes trying to mold marginal talent into a competitive opponent. But more often than not the net result has found the Bearcats finishing below the dreaded .500 winning percentage line; evident by way of just one season above .500 in 8 years. That achievement came last year as her team managed a respectable 16-14 (overall) record.
But for anyone who has been around Elliott they know there are three things about her character that stand out—traits consistent with her championship pedigree. She’s always positive, always persistent, and ever optimistic about the future of Bearcat basketball. “It’s been a nice long process for us. I have to believe we are moving in the right direction the last couple years. I’ve never wavered in the confidence I have in my staff or myself.”
Up until a recent home loss (79-70) to East Carolina (ECU) the 2017-18 Bearcats campaign has been much the surprise of the AAC (American Athletic Conference). Prior to ECU the Bearcats had reeled-off four straight wins, and were tied for second place in the conference. However that status was short-lived as the team fell back to six place with the loss. At press time they were still an impressive 5-3, and 13-8 overall.
Their positive turnaround can be attributed to several key factors; including veteran leadership from senior guard Ana Owens (11ppg) and senior forward Shanice Johnson (9ppg). But this year’s team has more weapons then just the predictable Owens-Johnson duo, making the Bearcats a formidable opposition for any team in the AAC. This year they have found consistent balance on both offense and defense.
The primary makeup of that balance comes with solid contributions from junior guard Nikira Goings (13ppg), sophomore forward Angel Rizor (9ppg) and freshman forward Llmari Thomas (11ppg). They’ve also seen timely support from sophomore guard Attoninette Miller (5ppg) and local Cincinnatian, sophomore forward, Sam Rodgers (5ppg). “This year we have some depth,” notes Elliott. “We have multiple players that can come in and help us win basketball games. Up until this point our bench has outscored just about every opponent. They’ve been our MVP.”
Yet despite their improvement, the Bearcats cannot rest easy during the final third of the season; especially if they want any consideration for a post-season bid. After ECU the ever optimistic Elliott remained confident her team would bounce-back, and be ready for a tough challenge—from the University of Central Florida (UCF). “We’re not going to try and recreate the wheel,” she says, about moving-on from a loss. “We’re going to get better with our press offense and some things we did making decisions with the ball. But I don’t plan on being any different.”
After UCF, the Bearcats travel to where else? Storrs…to face the once-again undefeated UConn Huskies (Feb. 4).