The most successful college basketball season by any South Florida team ended this week when the Nova Southeastern women’s team was eliminated just two wins short of a Division II national championship.
Still, it goes down as the greatest season in NSU history and continues an upward trend for the Sharks.
In three years under Coach LeAnn Freeland, the Sharks have gone 17-11, followed by 23-9 and their first trip to the Elite Eight in 2013, and 29-5 with their first trip to the final four.
“We are taking steps in the right direction,” said Freeland on Friday, two days after tenth-ranked NSU lost to No. 5 West Texas A&M, 80-66, at Erie, Pa.
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“Going forward, we have to work on our rebounding efficiency and just be more ready for the physicality of the game at the [Final Four] level. The officials let you play more, and we have to prepare our kids for that every day in practice.”
NSU, which trailed West Texas by 26 points in the second half before cutting the deficit to 10, got 21 points from shooting guard Taylor Buie, who will return for her junior season.
Rising guard and team leader Danielle Robinson and rising forward Jasmine Wilkins, the team’s leading rebounder (7.3), will return for their senior seasons.
Buie (15.7), Wilkins (12.8) and Robinson (12.5) were also the team’s top three scorers.
The Sharks will have to replace point guard Jessica Russi, who was among the nation’s leaders in assists (8.1). Starting forward Richelle Carach (11.7 points, 5.5 rebounds) and key three-point shooter off the bench Amanda Burakoski (10.0 points).
A key will be finding a replacement for Russi at point guard. Freeland said she has three options, one of which is Buie.
If the Sharks want more of a distributor at the point, the answer might be 5-9 junior Jessica Valley, who started 16 games at Division I Indiana State last season before suffering an ACL injury for the second consecutive year.
She redshirted this season but has practiced with the team and should be ready to go by the fall.
“Valley is solid fundamentally and very good in transition,” Freeland said.
The third option is 5-8 rising junior Alexis Murphy, whose play was hindered last this past season by a broken nose.
It will be interesting to see how much improvement will be made by some of the young players who were relatively inactive this season. That includes Katie Bernard, a 5-11 freshman forward from Indiana who redshirted this season after shoulder surgery.
There’s also Ashley Robinson, who started six games this season as a freshman, and 5-5 freshman guard Winter Rodriguez, who was a track star at Dade Christian.
“Winter is a tremendous athlete – the fastest player on our team,” Freeland said. “If she can match her basketball skill and knowledge to her athleticism, we will really have something.”