by: Randal Walton – Asst. Sports Editor
Plagued by injuries throughout the season, the women’s basketball team recently lost two close conference games to Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina.
“We have tons of injuries, but, I want these kids to understand that we’re still accountable for the result,” said head coach Brenda Kirkpatrick. “We have to play through those things and we have to respond. And that’s who we are, not what our record is.”
Injured players remain an important part of the team, said senior guard Grace Blaylock.
“We have lost several key pieces this year to injury. While it is frustrating for everyone involved, it is unfortunately part of athletics,” Blaylock said. “We have worked hard to make adjustments and continue to play hard each game. Our injured players are still an integral part of the team and continue to add positive energy through their enthusiasm and support.”
Both of the games held a very special importance with regards to the rest of the season, Blaylock said.
“The two games are important games that could give us some positive momentum as we head into the last few games of the season,” she said.
Kirkpatrick really wants the wins for the players whose last games at UNC Asheville evolve into special memories.
“We’ve got three seniors on our team. They’re all three starters, so they impact the game,” the Waynesville native said. “I’m excited for them because every game is special when you’re a senior. Every game is your last opportunity, and we’ve only got four home games left. So I’m really hoping for a win for them as well.”
In the loss against Charleston Southern last Thursday, senior forward Kelli Riles opened the scoring. Blaylock said early scores from Charleston Southern forced the team to play catch-up.
“We let them get some early baskets which gave them confidence,” Blaylock, a health and wellness promotion student, said. “We have to work to set the tone on our home court early in the game to help put us in a position to win.”
Protecting the ball and their house remains important during home games, said Kirkpatrick.
“For us, it’ll be taking care of the ball and limiting turnovers. Another thing is that we need to win the rebounding war. We need to out-rebound our opponents,” she said.
Riles gathered nine rebounds and scored 11 points in the game, adding to her already impressive total. Well on her way to scoring 1,000 rebounds and points, Riles could be the first woman in Division I women’s basketball to achieve this feat, Kirkpatrick said.
“It’s a great accomplishment and I don’t think words can explain it. I didn’t come in with a goal of getting 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds, it just happened,” Riles said. “My team encourages me and reminds me each day of this accomplishment, and they’re definitely an inspiration to me making this happen, so I do share this honor with them.”
Nail-biter describes the atmosphere of the game against Coastal Carolina. The game stayed close with both teams tied at 46 until the last 20 seconds of the game. Two late free throws from Coastal Carolina pushed the Chanticleers to victory.
“This loss was a very difficult one for the team to take. We laid everything we had on the line, but came up just short,” Blaylock said. “I was very proud of the heart and fight our team displayed tonight. We will learn from this loss and make adjustments as needed.”
Positive words from their coach provided some comfort, but the loss still hurt, Riles said.
“Our coach told us after the game that it’s OK to feel down and hold your head down when you pour your heart into something and still not get the result that you were fighting for,” the 22-year-old said. “It was a hard loss, very hard. One of those you go to sleep thinking about and wake up thinking about and just make you sick to your stomach.”
Both Big South opponents present different challenges, Kirkpatrick said.
“Charleston Southern has one of the premiere post players in the conference,” the 34-year-old said. “Coastal Carolina, on the other hand, is a very transition-oriented team. They like to push the basketball, they don’t play the ball inside, but they will try to get us to turn it over.”
A lack of victories this season, with their last win coming on Dec. 8 against Columbia College, can cause a team’s self-confidence and self-respect to weaken, Kirkpatrick said.
“I think that when you haven’t had a lot of success, it can affect you mentally and psychologically and it can affect your expectation because you’re not used to winning,” Kirkpatrick said. “If you start dwelling on that, it can become difficult to perform. You start playing not to lose instead of playing assured that you’re going to win.”
To finish the season with a winning perspective, the team must continue to fight, said Blaylock.
“I think we need to continue to play fearlessly. We have to be willing to lay our hearts on the floor every game,” the Roanoke, Va., native said. “It can be difficult to do when you do not get the wanted result, but we will put ourselves in a good position to win if we play with that attitude.”
Kirkpatrick said the respect for her team runs deep.
“I’m just really proud of them,” she said. “It’s not easy every day, but they come to work and we get better and we prepare for the next opponent. And we’re going to give it our best shot every time.”