RICHMOND, Ken. – The light sometimes shines brightest during the darkest of times.
The 2019-20 season had already come to an end for the Eastern Kentucky University women’s basketball team when word came that the NCAA tournament was being cancelled because of the coronavirus that continues to grip much of the nation and the world.
But even a virus cannot dampen things in Richmond as the Colonels look ahead to the start of the 2020-21 season.
And why not?
Under first-year head coach Samantha Williams the Colonels fashioned an incredible turnaround from the 2018-19 season.
“It all started when we found out that two of our transfers would be immediately eligible,” Williams said. “We knew we would get some size and athleticism.”
The two new faces to the EKU roster came in the form of I’Liyah Green and Samari Mowbry and both were critical components in the plans Williams had to turn the tide of fortunes at the school. Five other new faces also made their EKU debut this past season.
“We knew we had to change the culture of the program,” said Williams, who spent eight seasons as an assistant at Louisville before becoming taking over the EKU program just over a year ago. “It seems that when you lose consistently you fall into a rut. We needed to get each of the players to understand that they deserve and should expect to win.”
And win the Colonels did.
After winning just two games during the 2018-19 season, including none against Division 1 teams, Williams’ squad, won 11 games and defeated 10 Division 1 foes this past season. The Colonels finished 11-18 under Williams. They finished 5-13 in Ohio Valley Conference play and failed to make the OVC postseason tournament.
The arrival of Williams and the injection of winning that she brought with was felt out of the gate as the Colonels won the season opener against Northern Kentucky 69-62 and downed Memphis three days later to jump to a 2-0 record. EKU was 6-3 in the first nine games this past season under the new coach.
Green, a six-foot, two-inch center, was a big reason for the Colonel’s dramatic rise and it was noticed by others as she was voted the OVC’s newcomer of the year.
A transfer from the University of Cincinnati, Green averaged 7.8 points for the Colonels and ranked third on the team in that category. She also topped the team with an average of 7.6 rebounds per game.
A starter in all but one of EKU’s 29 games this past season, Green shot 46 percent (96-208) from the floor and added 29 of 45 (.644) free throws. She also led the team with 50 blocked shots, nearly two per game, and added 28 steals for the Colonels.
Mowbray, meanwhile, transferred to EKU after playing at Northern Kentucky and started 16 games this past season with the Colonels. A six-foot, one-inch guard, Mowbray ended her first year at EKU by averaging 6.8 points per game (fifth on the team) and an impressive 20 blocked shots from her guard position.
She connected on 67 of 185 (.362) field goal attempts, including 33 of 114 (.638) from three-point range and tied for fourth on the team with 3.5 rebounds per game this past season.
But, Green and Mowbray are not all that Williams is looking forward to when the 2020-21 season gets underway. The Colonels had just one senior, Catie Kaifes, on the roster this past season. Kaifes averaged four points per game in her final collegiate season.
Teri Goodlett, a junior, this past season, led EKU in scoring with 10.5 points per game and 13.3 points per game in conference play while finishing second on the team with 85 assists and third on the team in rebounding (3.7 rpg). She connected on 96 of 267 (.363) field goals, including 42 of 121 (.347) from behind the arc and was 36 of 49 (.735) from the foul line on her way to earning second-team all-conference honors.
The team’s No. 2 and No. 3 scorers are also expected to return in the form of Bria Bass, a 5-11 guard/forward and Qay Stanton (5-6, guard).
Bass scored 8.9 points per game as a junior this past season after shooting nearly 36 percent (91-255) from the floor and connecting on 59 of 82 (.720) free throws. Bass finished fifth on the team with 22 steals.
Stanton, meanwhile, averaged 6.9 points per game and led the team in assists (105) and steals (58) as a junior.
Williams, a former standout during her playing career at Auburn (1991-96) helped the Tigers to the NCAA tournament Auburn advanced to the Elite Eight during her senior season. Auburn downed Hawai’i 72-53 in the opening round of the tournament this season and downed Colorado (66-61) and Penn State (75-69) before being knocked out of the tournament by Stanford 71-57 to end the Tigers’ season.
Williams finished her Auburn career as the school’s top three-point field goal shooter after scoring 161 3’s during her time in a Tiger uniform and finishing her career with 1,106 points, 495 rebounds and 323 assists. She also play on the U.S. Junior National Team that won a bronze medal at the prestigious R. Williams Jones Cup in Taiwan.
Louisville finished 32-4 in Williams’ final season as an assistant was the top seed in the NCAA tournament before being knocked out by Connecticut 80-73 in the Elite Eight. The Cardinals were Atlantic Coast Conference champions in back-to-back years (2018-19) with Williams on the bench and were ranked as high as fifth in the nation.
Louisville reached the Final Four two times, appearing in the title game in 2013) and made six appearances in the Sweet 16 and advanced to the Elite Eight four times during Williams’ tenure at the school. The Cardinals were 236-55 with Williams as an assistant. She helped coach four players who were later drafted to play in the WNBA.
She said she prefers the up-tempo style of play.
Williams spent four seasons (2007-11) as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Duke and was instrumental in helping the Blue Devils capture a pair of ACC regular season title and two conference tournament titles.
Williams began her coaching career as an assistant at Butler (1998-99) before working as an assistant at Columbus State (2002-03). She later worked as an assistant at her alma mater (2003-04) and was an assistant at DePaul (2004-07) before moving home to Louisville.
“I like to shoot a lot of 3’s and get the ball up and down the floor,” the Colonel mentor said, “and, oh, I like to have a team that is able to play defense.”
Her Colonels showed that this past season as they limited opponents to under 38 percent shooting from the floor and allowed just 65 points per contest.
While EKU’s season was completed by the time the decision was made to cancel the NCAA tournament, Williams has empathy for the teams who were not able to finish the season and praised the play of some of the OVC foes.
“UT Martin took Louisville down to the wire during the regular season and that was no easy task against a very good Louisville team,” said Williams, a native of Louisville and an all-American by Parade and by Street and Smith. “It was said to not get to see how Southeast Missouri would end the season … they wear as hot as any team in the nation when things got called off.”
She is hoping the landscape of the nation, including collegiate athletics, remedies itself in the near future and things return to normal.
“If we’re not able to get together for summer school, that’s going to hurt us and every other team in the country,” the EKU coach said. “Summer is a time when the incoming freshman and the returning players are able to get together. The off season is a big time and is important time for the players to mesh and develop.
“We have the majority of our players coming back and along with the incoming freshman, I think everyone is ready to mark their mark on our program, Williams added. “I think we have the capability of go deep in the OVC next season … and the players seem willing to take the steps to do just that.”
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.