ODU women have help on way, but can succeed with current group

As Old Dominion’s women stumble out of the gate in Conference USA, it’s tempting to look toward the end of the bench and ponder the potential help wearing street clothes on game days.

Three of the perhaps top six players in the program are sitting out. Wings Jennie Simms and Annika Holopainen are transfers who will be eligible next season. Guard Ashley Betz-White sits out while recovering from a lower leg injury.

Simms, from Accokeek, Md., was a top-100 recruit out of high school who played one year at West Virginia. Holopainen, a 6-2 forward from Finland, played at Portland and was named to the West Coast Conference all-freshman team. She also played for Finnish junior national teams.

Betz-White was the CAA Rookie of the Year in 2012 and has only recently begun to work out again. A decision has yet to be made whether she will try to return this season or to redshirt and save a year of eligibility.

“You can’t really look too much into that when you’re on the court,” said junior Shae Kelly, ODU’s leading scorer and best player. “You play with who you have and you do the best that you can do with who you have on the floor and on the bench.

“Of course, it would be great to have Jen and Ashley and Annika playing, but we’ve got to do what’s best for us now and not look too far into the future. Because if we’re worried about next year when they can play, we forget about this year.”

ODU (7-9, 0-2 Conference USA) lost its first two C-USA games, 80-59 at Charlotte and 92-62 in the home opener to Tulane last Saturday — the most lopsided back-to-back league losses in the history of the program. In both games, the Lady Monarchs fell behind by double figures in the first half and were unable to mount a challenge in the second half.

Kelly was saddled with early foul trouble at Charlotte and her teammates could not compensate. Against Tulane, she was ODU’s only effective offensive performer in the first half. The Green Wave consistently got open shots, and its zone defense frustrated the Lady Monarchs.

Simms and Holopainen, and the gradual return of Betz-White, give ODU an entirely different team in practice than in games. Though they don’t play, they still contribute.

“They are part of the mix, in a way of being support systems, and they help us in practice, obviously,” guard Stephanie Gardner said. “But we don’t focus on what we don’t have. We focus on what we do have and who’s dressed. Everybody on the team can give us something, whether they’re sitting out or whether they’re ready to play. They do give us things that help us be a better team, in the (role) that they have now. We focus on who’s playing currently. But we know they’re definitely going to give us good stuff in the future.”

The Lady Monarchs will look significantly different next season. In addition to the three presently sitting out, they signed a recruiting class ranked No. 43 nationally by the All-Star Girls Report. That class includes Keyana Brown, a 5-11 guard from Williamsburg who leads the Bay Rivers District in scoring at Lafayette, Auteonna Gilmore, a 5-8 guard from Fort Washington, Md., who was named All-Met by the Washington Post, and Maia Lee, a 6-3 post player from McLean.

No one within the program has written off this season, not just two games into the league schedule. Head coach Karen Barefoot after Saturday’s loss talked about being consistently aggressive, and more mature. Kelly already provides so much — she averages a double-double and is often the first option on offense — that Barefoot hesitates to ask her to assume the leadership mantel, as well.

“I think this team sometimes plays too hard,” Barefoot said, “and when things don’t go their way, they get too down. They’ve got to get up, they’ve got to stay positive, they’ve got to say, ‘next play.’ That’s the leadership we need, the person who can say, ‘next play.’ We’re still trying to find that person that can do that. I think our point guards have got to be more assertive.”

ODU was picked to finish sixth in its first year in C-USA and lost decisively to the teams that were picked to finish third (Tulane) and fourth (Charlotte). Because of the size of the conference (16 teams), the Lady Monarchs won’t get a crack at either of them until possibly the tournament. East Carolina is the only team they face twice in a 16-game league schedule.

“I think it is a wake-up call,” Kelly said after the Tulane loss. “We had tough (competition) early in the season, but we knew the conference was going to be tough. Size-wise, rebounding, better competition. We knew we were going into a conference that was not going to be easy. It taught us a lot about ourselves — just what we need to work on. It isolated the exact spots that we need to work on. It sucks that we took the losses, but it also impresses on us what we need to work on and get better at.”

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