Season preview: Finding balance could tip scales in UCCS' favor

By Doug Fitzgerald published October 28, 2008

Balance is a very good thing to have if youâ€TMre an accountant, a judge or a tightrope walker.

Itâ€TMs also good to have if youâ€TMre a basketball team.

The 2007-08 University of Colorado at Colorado Springs womenâ€TMs basketball team was loaded. The Mountain Lions boasted arguably the best post players in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. They also had a solid mix of experience and youth. They raised expectations by sweeping their way to a championship at the 2007 Disney's Division II Tip-Off East Coast Classic.

But after a 4-0 start, UCCS lost seven straight on its way to finishing with a disappointing 11-19 record.

So what happened?

The Mountain Lions were talented, but not balanced. The first weakness exposed by opposing coaches was outside shooting. UCCS made just 29.6 percent of its 3-pointers on the season, which allowed opponents to pack the paint. That, in turn, took away much of the Mountain Lionsâ€TM advantage in the post.

Secondly, after senior Stacy LaBuhn went down with an injury in the preseason, the Mountain Lions were left with only one true point guard â€" Janean Jubic. Seeing this, opponents pressed her relentlessly and ran plays designed to run her into punishing picks. When Jubic came off the floor, opponents pressed the Mountain Lions into turnovers. As a result, Jubic was forced to average 37.4 minutes per game through the month of November.

For that, there was a price to be paid. Through Novemberâ€TMs eight games, Jubic was averaging 9.9 points and 5.6 assists per game while shooting 38.6 percent from 3-point range. From December on, the averages dropped to 5.7 points and 3.9 assists and the 3-point percentage plummeted to 26.1 percent.

“We saw the weaknesses in our outside game, particularly in our point guard spot,” said UCCS coach Jessika Caldwell. "We knew we needed more depth, we knew that we needed at least two more point guards to come in to relieve (Jubic) and push and compete with her.

“That was something that we wanted to address immediately and by bringing in Payden Ackerman, Karlee Gradisar, and even Jessica Lynch, I think that we have now added kids that can not only play (point guard), but also feel comfortable playing (off guard).”

Ackerman, from Trinidad High School, and Gradisar, from Pueblo East, are both freshmen who have been impressive in the preseason. So has Lynch, a sophomore who transferred from Division I Bucknell. Ackerman brings point guard skills (4.3 assists per game) and shooting (205 career 3-pointers made), while Gradisar, the daughter of a basketball coach, has superior basketball IQ. Lynch, the Intermountain League player of the year as a senior at Pagosa Springs High School, went on to hit 14 of her 24 3-point attempts at Bucknell.

While those three will provide depth behind Jubic, they will also be in competition for minutes at the off guard spot along with veteran Lauren Holm and newcomer Alex Sherk. Holm, who was pressed into duty at the point a year ago, returns to the wing where she is much more comfortable. That should allow the junior to improve upon the 28.9 3-pointer percentage she posted in 2007-08. Sherk, a freshman, was a dynamic shooter in AAU ball, making 43.4 percent of her 3-pointers.

The small forward position features two exciting players in sophomore Jazzmin Awa-Williams and freshman Katie Eickelman. Awa-Williams is a strong player who drives hard to the basket and gets to the foul line. A Hawaiian, she sprained her ankle early in the season on a patch of ice and was limited. She did come back to average 8.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game over the final five games of the season. Eickelman, the sister of Colorado Mines guard Peanut Eickelman, averaged 16.4 points per game as Gradisarâ€TMs teammate at Pueblo East.

The one common thread connecting all of the guards is that they can all shoot.

“When we shot well we did well, when we didnâ€TMt shoot well we didnâ€TMt do well,” said Caldwell. The numbers bear her out. UCCS is 7-1 when shooting over 50 percent from the field during her tenure and is 14-7 when shooting between 40 and 49.9 percent.

“What we wanted to find some shooting consistency from the outside,” she continued. “I feel like we added some really athletic and quick players that are able to get to the basket to help create those open shots as well as get our post players open for some lay-ups around the bucket.”

Those post players should continue to be a strength for the Mountain Lions. Returning are senior Nancy Hoist, junior Alex Pitts and sophomore Mallory Lowe. Joining them are freshmen Ashley Miller and Audy Bell.

Hoist, who averaged 8.1 points and 4.9 rebounds last year, will move from power forward to her natural position at center. Sheâ€TMs strong going to the hoop but can also step back and drain the 3-pointer if defenses try to collapse.

“Nancy has come in in the best shape that weâ€TMve seen her and she feels very inspired because itâ€TMs her senior year,” said Caldwell.

Lowe could be in for a quantum leap forward after averaging just 2.6 points and 1.6 rebounds in 7.6 minutes per game as a freshman. She moves extremely well for her size (6-foot-1) and can shoot (39.1 percent on 3-pointers).

“Sheâ€TMs developed to be a good inside/outside threat; she knows what she needs to do in order to score in the paint,” said Caldwell. “Her physicality and her understanding of using her speed and quickness to her advantage will really help her both inside and outside.”

Pitts, meanwhile, is what Caldwell calls “the epitome of consistency.” She does all the things ( boxing out, setting picks, playing team defense) that a team needs to be successful and has also shown an improved outside shot in the preseason.

Miller will see playing time at every position except the point. Her quickness will make it difficult for post players to match up on her, while guards will have difficulty matching her strength. At 5-foot-11, she averaged 17.4 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting an astounding 66.7 percent as a high school senior. Bell will be groomed to take over in the post.

Undoubtedly, opposing coaches are going to have a much more difficult time finding a weakness to exploit on the 2008-09 Mountain Lions. In fact, the competition in practice is so fierce that Caldwell isnâ€TMt really certain what the depth chart is going to look like.

“Because the line between each player is so close, it really helps simulate that game-like atmosphere and helps our preparation in order to play at that high level once we get into games,” said Caldwell. “(Normally) itâ€TMs really hard in practice to recreate that speed and that intensity. But when you have kids that are really fighting it out â€" itâ€TMs a dogfight everyday in practice â€" thatâ€TMs what theyâ€TMre going to see in games and theyâ€TMre more prepared to handle that.”

And that, in turn, should lead to balance.

“We wanted to make sure we balanced out our scoring from the inside and the outside,” said Caldwell. “One of the things that we pride ourselves on as a team is the ability to play hard every single minute. I think weâ€TMve done that, but we will be able to do it for longer periods of time and throughout the whole season if we are more balanced.”

UCCS Players/Staff Featured

Alex SherkAlex Sherk3G
Katie EickelmanKatie Eickelman5G
Audy BellAudy Bell31C
Audy BellAudy Bell31C
Jessica LynchJessica Lynch2G
Jessica LynchJessica Lynch2G
Alex PittsAlex Pitts21FFr.
Alex PittsAlex Pitts44FJr.
Alex PittsAlex Pitts50FSo.
Additional News Stories
July 9, 2009Bell honing skills in Utah summer leagueUCCS basketball player Audie Bell, who is playing in a summer league, was featured in a story in the Salt Lake City Tribune. To read the story, Click Here.
June 2, 2009Four to join UCCS for 2009-10 seasonUniversity of Colorado at Colorado Springs women's basketball coach Stephen Kirkham announced the first recruiting class of his second Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference coaching stint with the addition of four players.
May 13, 2009UCCS announces dates for girls summer basketball campsUniversity of Colorado at Colorado Springs women’s basketball coach Stephen Kirkham announced Wednesday that the Mountain Lions will be holding three camps this summer.
April 20, 2009Kirkham to assume duties as UCCS women's basketball coachCOLORADO SPRINGS – University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Athletic Director Stephen Kirkham will assume duties at the women’s basketball coach for the 2009-10 season.
March 11, 2009Caldwell resigns as UCCS womens' basketball coachUniversity of Colorado at Colorado Springs women’s basketball coach Jessika Caldwell resigned her position, UCCS athletic director Stephen Kirkham announced Wednesday.
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