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'We can be great': Towson women’s basketball off to best start in CAA play in 11 years

In retrospect, the turning point for the Towson women’s basketball team unfolded during halftime of a game three days before Christmas.

On Dec. 22, the Tigers were staring at a 12-point deficit at Marshall with only two quarters left in their nonconference finale. Junior guard/forward Nukiya Mayo said the players knew the next 20 minutes could go a long way toward determining the team’s future path.

“We just had to decide that that team was not better than us and that we shouldn’t be down 12 at halftime and that we were not playing our hardest on defense and that we could definitely execute better on offense,” she said Wednesday. “Nobody was upset. We just knew what we needed to do to win the game.”

Towson eventually outscored the Thundering Herd, 49-30, in the final two quarters to cement a 76-69 win. What the team did not know at the time was the outcome would ignite a five-game winning streak that has the Tigers reaching 10 victories in their first 15 games, the program’s fastest pace to double-digit wins since the 2011-12 squad started 10-2.

Towson’s current run includes a 4-0 start in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), marking the program’s best opening in league play since the 2007-08 team won its first six conference games. The Tigers, who are tied with preseason favorite James Madison (12-3, 4-0 CAA) atop the league, will try to improve to 5-0 on Friday night at the College of Charleston (5-9, 1-2).

The Tigers find themselves in unfamiliar territory, which is refreshing for coach Diane Richardson, who went 9-21 overall and 4-14 in the CAA in her first year leading the program last season. But she emphasized that now is not the time to grow content with the early success.

“Our goal is to focus on what we have ahead of us,” she said. “We have a saying, ‘You’re only as good as your last game.’ So we’re trying to stay levelheaded and not look too far into the future because we’ve got to battle [Friday].”

Towson’s sudden rise to the top of the conference after being voted eighth in the league’s 10-team preseason poll is surprising considering it had graduated two starters — 6-foot-4 forward Mary Cuevas (team-leading 13.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per game) and 5-10 point guard Raine Bankston (12.3 points per game and team-high 63 assists and 57 steals). The tigers also watched 5-8 point guard Etalyia Vogt (6.5 points per game) transfer to the University of the District of Columbia.

But the offense has been strengthened by the additions of 5-8 redshirt sophomore shooting guard Kionna Jeter and 5-9 redshirt junior point guard Q. Murray. Jeter, a transfer from Gulf Coast State, entered Thursday leading the CAA in scoring at 21.1 points per game and steals at 3.4 per game. Murray, a Baltimore resident and Milford Mill graduate who sat out last season after transferring from Appalachian State, ranks third in the league in assists at 4.1 per game and third on the team in points at 8.1 per game.

Jeter, Murray and Mayo (13.1 ppg, 7.1 rebounds per game) have helped fuel a Tigers offense that ranks third in the conference in scoring, but Jeter insisted defenses can’t solely pay attention to the trio.

“Everybody contributes and does what they have to do,” she said. “I just wanted to be a factor. I just wanted to come in and do what I needed to do to help my teammates out.”

Murray said she believes the different this season is that the current group of players has found a comfort zone under Richardson, who had been an assistant coach at Maryland, West Virginia and George Washington and the head coach at Riverdale Baptist School in Prince George’s County.

“Last year’s team was their first year with a new coaching staff,” Murray said. “So the chemistry wasn’t all the way there, but they still had potential, and I knew new pieces were coming in that had potential to make everything work out.”

Richardson conceded it has taken some time for her and her coaching staff to fill the roster with the type of players who embrace the uptempo pace and aggressive perimeter defensive style she preaches.

“We knew as a coaching staff that we had to get our players better and accustomed to the style of play, and our concentration was just on getting them better,” she said. “We knew the wins would come once they grasped all of that and bought into what we were trying to do. That’s what has happened. The results are the result of them stepping up their games.”

The players are a cohesive bunch, attending football games and other on-campus events together, playing laser tag and watching movies as a group. Both Jeter and Murray said their chemistry has been aided by cookouts and pool parties at Richardson’s home in Howard County.

“Outside of basketball, she’s always there for us when we need her,” said Jeter, who grew up in Spartanburg, S.C. “She’s just like my grandmom from home, and I’m far away from home. So I need that family environment so that I can be comfortable.”

Towson’s 4-0 start in the CAA is a blessing and a curse because the rest of the conference will now set its sights on trying to end the team’s run. That message is one that Mayo, one of the team’s veterans, has tried to reinforce.

“We don’t want to become complacent with where we are,” she said. “We know we have to keep going. Since we’re winning now, everybody’s going to try to beat us.”

The Tigers have been a notoriously slow bunch, getting outscored by 46 points in the first half this season. But against league competition, they have outscored their opponents by eight points in the first two quarters, and Jeter said the players have to maintain that aggression.

“I think we come out slow sometimes, and we get down to teams,” she said. “We don’t need to get down because then we have to pull ourselves back out of a hole. That doesn’t need to be the case.”

While no one is anticipating Towson will complete an 18-0 run in the conference, there is no prohibition about openly discussing capturing the CAA title.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to do thus far,” Murray said. “We can be great. We can go all the way.”

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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