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October 12, 2009

Hokies look to right the ship with added scoring punch

By: Matt Kovatch

Nikki Davis will be Tech's full-time point guard this season, and her attacking style of play should help the team to some higher-scoring games.

If Tech head men’s basketball coach Seth Greenberg is excited about the defensive mentality that he hopes to bring out of the Hokies this season, then women’s coach Beth Dunkenberger is just as excited about the exact opposite for her team.

She wants to score points.

Of course, what coach doesn’t? But there are few teams around the ACC that need to score points more so than the Hokies, who tallied just one measly point more than their opponents over the course of last season. That ranked Virginia Tech next to last in scoring margin in the conference, just ahead of Clemson.

The Hokies also ranked next to last in scoring average, turning in a paltry 62.2 points per contest. That simply was not enough when six of your opponents ranked among the top 37 in the country, including North Carolina and Maryland, which ranked second and third, respectfully.

Not coincidentally, Tech also ranked next to last in another category last year – win-loss record. The Hokies went 2-12 in league play for the second consecutive season, while their overall record of 12-18 marked their first losing season since the 1996-97 campaign.

But with every new season comes new hope, and the Hokies have plenty of it heading into Dunkenberger’s sixth year at the helm.

“This team has very high aspirations,” Dunkenberger said. “Our seniors want to go out on top. They are optimistic, because despite the fact that we lost so many contributors last year [Brittany Cook and Andrea Barbour prior to the season, and Amber Hall after eight games], we still found a way to be in games.”

There was a four-point loss to regular-season co-champion Boston College in the ACC opener. There was a five-point loss to No. 4 Duke, as well as a six-point loss to No. 16 Virginia. There was also a five-point loss to fifth-place Georgia Tech late in the season, in addition to a handful of other single-digit losses throughout the year. If only the Hokies had another couple of scorers.

Well, this year, thanks to the addition of “one of the best recruiting classes in the program’s history,” according to Dunkenberger, that’s exactly what the Hokies have. Tech’s five freshmen combined to score nearly 8,000 points in high school, with guards Alyssa Fenyn (2,499) and Aerial Wilson (2,209) combining for well over half of them. Though there is sure to be an adjustment period to the college game, it’s obvious that this quintet of youngsters, which also includes forward Abby Redick, forward/center Porschia Hadley and center Taylor Ayers, knows how to put the ball in the basket.

Those five freshmen won’t have to do too much, too soon, however. They are joining a group that returns 85 percent of its scoring and 83 percent of its rebounding from a year ago. How many teams around the nation can say that?

It all begins with seniors Utahya Drye and Lindsay Biggs, either of whom led the Hokies in scoring in 22 of the 30 games last year. Drye paced the team in both scoring and rebounding, while Biggs, if she repeats her performance from last season, has a chance to become the most prolific 3-point shooter in Tech history.

“Last season, when both of those two played well, we won, or were in, games,” Dunkenberger said of Drye and Biggs. “But if one of them had an off night, we struggled as a team. This year, I think we have a lot of other kids who can score; Lindsay or Utahya can have a bad night once in a while. I think both of them will benefit from having more scoring options on the court this year. There won’t be the pressure for them to lead us every night.”

While Fenyn, Wilson and Redick will surely keep opponents honest by providing a punch on the wings, look for sophomore Shanel Harrison to take the next step in her development. The 6-foot guard showed flashes of promise as a freshman, but was unable to provide a consistent threat due to a balky knee that she had repaired in the offseason. Brittany Gordon, the Hokies’ 6-4 starting center, could also surprise in her junior year. The raw post player developed her defense and rebounding on the fly last year, and Dunkenberger said she is finally starting to piece together her offensive responsibilities.

Guards Lakeisha Logan and Shani Grey, in addition to forward Elizabeth Basham, will play roles coming off the bench, but the biggest change in this offense – even more so than the addition of the freshmen – is redshirt junior Nikki Davis taking over as the full-time point guard.

Davis started for a year at Alabama before transferring to Tech and did get some minutes at point guard in her first season as a Hokie. But when in the game at the same time as then-senior Laura Haskins, Davis played out of position at the “2” spot. While Haskins was a steady and reliable veteran, she offered little in the scoring department. Davis, however, is the complete opposite.

“Nikki is good with the ball in her hands,” Dunkenberger said. “She makes good decisions in transition and she can find the open person, but she’s also a very good scorer.”

Though Davis’ 7.5 points-per-game average wasn’t mind-blowing, her style of play suggests that her damage is done in other ways. Davis is constantly looking to penetrate and attack the basket, which is something that can put defenses in compromising situations. Will opponents let Davis get to the hole for a layup? Or will they collapse on her, leaving Drye open for a dump-off or Biggs open for an uncontested trey? The play of a point guard can completely change a team’s offensive style, and the Hokies are hoping that Davis can do just that.

If all of these factors – the attacking mentality of Davis, the development of Harrison and Gordon, the influx of talented freshmen and the reduced pressure on Drye and Biggs – come together, can the Hokies win a few of those close games, get back to a winning record and get invited to the postseason?

“We really think we have enough to push us over the edge,” Dunkenberger said. “With what we are returning and how close we were in so many games last year, this could be our year to turn things around and get right back to where we belong.”

Where Tech belongs remains to be seen, but there’s no simpler way to get there than by trying to score a few more points.

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Beth Dunkenberger’s five favorite things about the new basketball practice facility:

1. The ‘wow’ factor

“The very first recruit that we brought in to see it stepped inside the door, put her finger up and said, ‘I’ll be right back. I’ve got to go get my camera.’ That gives you an idea.”

2. The access

“We have 24/7 access to a court, a weight room and a training room. If a girl wants to shoot at 10 at night or 10 in the morning, she can. We don’t have to worry about whether we have a court or not.”

3. The graphics package

“It takes it from being a great facility to being a one-of-a-kind, unique showcase of Virginia Tech basketball. It’s got so much character. Not only does it look good, but it’s also a tribute to all the great players and teams that have come through Virginia Tech.”

4. The completeness

“I think they did a great job of thinking through exactly what we needed. I can’t think of a single thing that I would do differently if we had to start from scratch and build it again.”

5. The technology

“It’s the highest-tech building I’ve ever worked in. With the video editing system, its integration with the video room and the built-in cameras in the gym, you almost need a degree in electronics to figure out just how much this building has to offer.”