By Mark Brown
Cincinnati Herald Contributor
The Xavier women’s basketball team lost 15 of their final 17 games!
To their credit, a 57-54 win over Butler, on the last game of the regular season, did bring some positive closure to their Big East demise…..yet their dismal 3-15 conference record (10-19 overall) was certainly “enough said” when assessing their 2017-18 season. Or was it?
A free-fall of this magnitude is often emblematic of a struggling program that will have several difficult items to address in the off-season… at the conclusion of the Big East tournament. A more competitive focus, direction, and overall strategy is certain to be among the agenda items for Xavier head coach Brian Neal and his staff. “Once the season is done we (the coaches) will back away for a couple weeks. Then we will evaluate everything that we’ve done and figure out where we want to go moving forward,” Neal said.
If there are any positive take-aways Xavier can draw upon, it’s the fact that the program does have a talented mix of incoming recruits, and current players returning for next season…..most of which received ample playing time this year. At the top of that talented group is sophomore guard Na’Teshia “T” Owens, junior forward Imani Partlow, and shooting guard, Kendall Fincher. Each showed moments of promise during this season and should provide a solid nucleus for Neal to build upon. Add in current freshman, forward A’riana Gray, guard Aliyah Dunham, forward Princess Stewart, and forward Deja Ross, and next year’s personnel look stronger than Xavier’s had in past years. “We’re going to have at least eleven freshman and sophomores next year,” said Neal, on the program’s outlook. “It will be the core or nucleus of our program for a long time.”
While talent alone will not rectify the seismic collapse the team experienced this year (and last), proper management/coaching of that talent will ultimately be the determining factor for Xavier’s success moving forward. As Neal enters his sixth season as head coach, he looks to have enough pieces of the Xavier puzzle to make the team more competitive in the coming year. Time will tell whether or not those pieces form a clear picture.
According to the coaches pre-season poll, the Cincinnati women’s basketball program was picked to finish 8th in the American Athletic Conference. After edging out a close victory over Houston (61-57), on the last game of the season, Cincinnati took sole possession of 4th place in the AAC; defying the coaches poll, and any naysayers that may have doubted their resiliency.
Cincinnati closed-out the regular season an impressive 10-6 (AAC), 18-11 (overall). For 9th year head coach, Jamelle Elliott it was her best season on record at 7 games over .500. But for Elliott, it was less about her, and more about the hard work the team had put in during the year; culminating into a first-round bye in the upcoming AAC tournament. As an acknowledgement of the team’s effort, she gave her squad a couple days off practice. “I gave them two days off,” said Elliott, after securing the first round bye. “At this point there is nothing we can do in practice that is going to be more valuable than giving them two days of rest before going into conference play and hopefully post-season play.”
Playing the role of the “hunted” instead of “hunter” Cincinnati has the opportunity to extend their season’s success—not only with a potential run in the AAC tournament but perhaps a NCAA or NIT bid thereafter. Either would be a significant achievement for women’s basketball at Cincinnati.
While the success of this year’s season was embraced with the excitement it deserved, it also signaled the close of two key player’s careers; senior guard Ana Owens, and senior forward, Shanice Johnson. Each played a prominent role in placing Cincinnati in the proverbial “drivers seat” at the end of this season.
Johnson, a junior-college transfer, and two-year starter averaged 13ppg/8 rebs (career)—but more-so brought a competitive edge the team lacked in years past. “She’s been a winner since she got here,” said Elliott, about Johnson’s contribution. “She has a spirit, edge, and confidence about her where her play, and what she says in the lockeroom make guys believe they can be better. That’s the best thing she’s brought to our team.”
As for Owens, it was not only her 12ppg career average and savvy ball-handling, but her endless durability that led a successful Cincinnati run. In four seasons, Owens never missed a start/game (119 consecutive) and logged an impressive 35-plus minutes per-game career average. An achievement Elliott has appreciated. “She’s a 5’3” duracell battery that continues to keep going, going and going. I’m going to continue to ride her as long as we keep playing. When you see her play it seems like she never gets tired.”
The Bearcats travel to Connecticut for the AAC tournament. They will face the winner of Tulsa versus Houston in the 2nd round.