Knights Looking to Carry Momentum into 2009-10

Oct. 19, 2009

By Andrew Gavin

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - With great results come great expectations. What a difference one remarkable turnaround season makes.

In 2008-09, UCF overcame a difficult start, defied all expectations and rose from being picked to finish last in the conference to first in Conference USA. The four wins in four days to claim the C-USA Tournament Championship, the trip to the NCAA Tournament and the 15 wins in the last 21 games were incredible feats and total surprises, at least to those outside the UCF women's basketball family.

"Our expectations were high going into last year," said head coach Joi Williams, the 2009 C-USA Coach of the Year. "People may have thought we were crazy because it was only year two and we had sophomores and freshmen, but we were confident and understood that we had what it took to have that type of success."

The C-USA coaches picked UCF to finish last in the league prior to the 2008-09 season, and Williams does not deny that the low expectations from others motivated the entire program to rise above and surprise people.

"It motivated us. We talked about it and we expected it. I expected us to be picked 11 or 12," Williams said. "I think it sent a message to our players that people around the league didn't think we would get any better.

Now entering her third season at UCF, Williams understands that while expectations inside her own locker room remain constant, there will be a significant change in the external expectations of UCF women's basketball. She knows those external expectations will be new to her basketball team, and the way they are handled will go a long way in determining whether the Knights will meet their goals in 2009-10.

"Last season raises the expectations from the outside looking in," said Williams. "Our expectations are the same and will be high. The thing that is different now is you add in the outside expectations and it will be interesting to see how our team handles that. Will they look at it as pressure or will they look at it as there is nothing different? We will be looked at as a target, and that is something I am not sure how we will handle. I think we will handle it well, but that remains to be seen."

The expectations are not the only thing that will be different when the Knights hit the court this season. UCF was a young basketball team last season, with only 33 points and three starts coming from upperclassmen. The youth attributed to the difficult 2-11 start, as the players had to learn how to win.

"Learning from mistakes and learning from losses especially helped us," said Williams. "When we looked at those games and saw why we lost them and how we lost them, everyone thought about what they could do differently as individuals to make sure the outcome would be different next time. One big reason we had that success at the end of the season was because we bought into doing the little things, especially on the defensive end."

Now, yet another year older, the Knights, especially a core group of seven juniors, have a completely different experience level, and with that a new confidence level.

Junior Emma Cannon leads a roster of 10 returning letterwinners. She is one of seven juniors on the team, a group that has been with Williams since her first season at UCF and accounts for 228 starts over the past two seasons.

After a productive freshman season, Cannon burst onto the scene a year ago with a dominant sophomore campaign. Her numbers throughout the season - 15.5 points and 11.6 rebounds per game to go along with 21 double-doubles - garnered her a spot on the All-C-USA First Team.

"Last year, Emma really bought into what we had been stressing to her, and when she did that she had some great games," Williams said. "I think the sky is the limit for Emma. I think she improved physically in getting stronger, and she also started to become more of a student of the game."

Due to her success, no one player will experience the raised outside expectations more than Cannon. She was named the 2009-10 C-USA Preseason Player of the Year last week, and Williams knows that Cannon's ability to deal with the added attention is important.

"Her handling that attention with poise is going to be a big part of our success," Williams said. "There were times last year that she showed a lot of poise and then there were times where she had some breakdowns.

"Her teammates have to look at her and know that no matter what opposing defenses do she is prepared for it. We will prepare her in practice, but sometimes when you get into a game you do not know where that goes. The perimeter players have to have the confidence to know that if she is double teamed, then someone else is open and needs to step up."

One area that UCF has focused offseason attention on is getting physically stronger. From Cannon to the team's point guards, Williams says she has noticed a difference in the players' physiques.

The added strength, along with improved depth, should help the Knights through another rigorous schedule. Prior to beginning the quest for a C-USA regular season title, UCF will play a non-conference schedule including the season opener at Middle Tennessee State and home games against Washington, Alabama, Florida State and Notre Dame.

MTSU, Florida State and Notre Dame all played in the NCAA Tournament a season ago, and all three appear in numerous preseason top-25 polls for 2009-10. Williams understands the importance of playing the nation's elite and is excited about the opportunity it presents her program.

"It means a great deal to us, and it means a lot to play at the UCF Arena," Williams said. "We are bringing in some quality opponents from different conferences. From our schedule last year our players know that they can go out and compete, but they also know it is not going to be easy."

The Knights will play six of nine non-conference games at home this season, a luxury for a team which enters the season riding an eight-game home winning streak.

"The comforts of playing at home are always nice, and we played well there last season," Williams said. "In order to keep having success at home, we will need to play with a lot of pride and great effort."

One of the keys to UCF's success toward the end of last season was its continued emphasis and improvement on the defensive end of the floor. In the C-USA Tournament, the Knights allowed just 58.8 points per game and held opponents to just 35.6 percent field goal shooting. Williams stresses that as the key in 2009-10.

"Our philosophy is that everything starts with our defense," the third-year coach said. "That is what put us in position to win the championship. Our team defense was probably better that week [of the championship] than at any other point in the season. Our players saw the success that they had because of our defensive effort and rebounding."

Sophomore Aisha Patrick became the defensive stopper from game one during her freshman season, guarding the opponent's best perimeter player. Patrick, who also had 33 starts and averaged nearly nine points per contest, will be counted on for production on both ends of the floor.

Along with Cannon and Patrick, Williams also welcomes back starting guards Angelica Mealing and Chelsie Wiley. The improvement and consistency of the two juniors were key factors in the UCF resurgence last season.

The emergence of Wiley gave the Knights the top scoring duo in Conference USA a season ago. Wiley stretched the defense with her long-range jump shot, hitting 73 three-pointers while averaging 14.9 points per game and earning spots on the All-Conference USA Third Team and C-USA All-Tournament Team.

"We felt like Chelsie could be a big threat, and the main thing with her was that her confidence level grew," Williams said. "That really helped her because she wanted the ball in crucial situations and trusted her to take big shots, and she delivered. Chelsie's success was a testament to the work she put in during practice and over the offseason."

After three different players started at point guard over the first seven games, Mealing cemented herself in that spot for the remainder of the season. The southpaw averaged 7.6 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore while leading C-USA in free-throw percentage (80.9%).

"I think she emerged last year as a player we could depend on," Williams said. "We wanted the ball to be in her hands, and she did a great job down the stretch of being a floor general and at doing the things we needed her to do."

Wiley, Mealing and Patrick are joined by four others to give the Knights tremendous depth in the backcourt. Juniors Marshay White and Jelisa Caldwell also return while senior transfer Jessica Hall and incoming freshman Gevenia Carter are added to the mix.

A transfer from Memphis, Hall has experience playing in Conference USA and has had success at a high level. In her last year at Memphis, she averaged a team-high 13 points per game and twice scored 21 against the Knights. A graduate student, Hall also brings a different maturity level to the squad.

"She has played at this level and she has played in this conference so she knows what to expect," Williams said. "Her temperament is pretty even in that she doesn't get too high or too low which will be a good calming force for our team. She will be someone the team can look to in the huddle. She will bring that along with her knowledge."

Carter is the most highly-touted recruit in the program's history, having been ranked 61st nationally in the class of 2009. Along with Hall, she can play both guard positions, and Williams is excited about having another player with the ability to create shots for both her teammates and herself.

Before turning their attention to defending the C-USA Tournament title, the Knights will aim for another first in program history, winning the regular season championship.

For that to happen, Williams believes her team will have to continue to grow in certain areas, especially now with a target on its back.

"I think our mental toughness has to improve even more. I think we grew a lot in that area last year, but now we have to be even stronger mentally because people are going to be coming after us," Williams said. "This year we have to be more consistent in our practice effort. I think our players can really see how that translates to games. Our mental preparation must be greater this year."

Williams speaks highly of C-USA and speaks highly, not only of what her team can accomplish this season, but the league as a whole. With the 10 of the 15 all-conference players returning, including Cannon and Wiley, the league is loaded with talent.

"The talent is there across the league. Hopefully with our television package being better we will be able to showcase that. The league has very good players back when you talk about Jareica Hughes from UTEP, Pauline Love from Southern Miss and SMU's Brittany Gilliam. There are so many great players returning, and I think that makes the league a lot stronger. They are potential WNBA draft picks so it is exciting. I think C-USA will get a lot more attention because of that."

As for the race for the league title, Williams thinks it will be the usual suspects from the previous few seasons, but, remembering her own team's success from a year ago, knows all 12 teams have a shot.

"There are a lot of teams that return some very talented players," she said. "I think it is going to be a great year for C-USA. Hopefully it is a year where we can go a step forward and make a name for our league by winning more quality non-conference games. Once we get to conference play, I think it is going to be very wide open."