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December 10, 2010

Tech coaching staff still going through learning process with young squad

By: Jimmy Robertson

Aerial Wilson had back-to-back career scoring highs and is seeing more playing time as a result of her increased production.

Tech women’s basketball head coach Beth Dunkenberger knew the early part of this season would be a learning process for a young squad that features 10 freshmen and sophomores.

But did she know there would be a learning process for her and her staff?

“Absolutely,” she said.

In the Hokies’ first seven games this season, Dunkenberger used five different starting lineups. An injury to Shanel Harrison necessitated one change, but for the most part, Dunkenberger is trying to find some consistency within her youthful bunch.

In particular, Dunkenberger is searching for someone to emerge in the post. The Hokies feature a lot of height, with five players taller than 6-foot-2. So far, freshman Nia Evans, sophomore Porschia Hadley and senior Brittany Gordon all started at some point in those first seven games with varying degrees of success.

“It’s obvious we’re struggling to find a consistent post presence,” Dunkenberger said. “We’ve had different people step up in different games, but it’s hard when you go through six, seven, eight post players to figure out who’s ready to play. Who’s ready to defend? Who’s ready to rebound?

“The thing I keep telling these guys is that if they are ready to play defense and rebound, then the offense will come. You can’t let the fact that you miss a lay-up or drop a pass dictate how you play on the defensive end.”

Dunkenberger got a great game out of Evans in the victory over Winthrop. Though slightly undersized at 6-0, Evans – who started seven of the Hokies’ first eight games – scored 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 23 minutes. She made 5-of-9 from the floor and was one of just two players to shoot better than 50 percent against Winthrop. Tech shot a chilly 35 percent in the 53-48 win.

“That was much better from Nia,” Dunkenberger said. “We kept her out of foul trouble. I thought she did a good job on both ends of the court. She played hard.”

In general, though, Dunkenberger hasn’t been pleased with her team’s play. Tech usually struggles from the tip and gets behind early, and then uses a second-half rally to get back in the game. That happened in the Winthrop game when the Hokies trailed with less than 10 minutes to play and needed an 11-0 run to put the game away.

The real question is why they struggle early in games.

“I’ve watched tapes until I’m blue in the face,” Dunkenberger said. “We’re trying to figure this out. It’s very frustrating. Intensity is something they can bring and need to bring every single game.

“We wait until the last eight minutes before we play hard. We’ve got to find a way to play with that intensity for 40 minutes. When we do that, we’ll be a much better team.”

Harrison misses time

Shanel Harrison, arguably the Hokies’ most gifted player, missed the Minnesota game and most of the Iowa game with concussion-like symptoms.

The symptoms started in the VCU win when she got kneed in the head and kicked in the head on two separate occasions. Then, at the end of the Florida Gulf Coast game, she fell and hit her head hard on the floor. She tried to play in the Iowa game, but Tech’s trainer and coaches pulled her after she complained of nausea.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the Hokies lost the Florida Gulf Coast, Iowa and Minnesota games with her suffering from the symptoms. She returned against Winthrop and scored 11 points, but hit just 5-of-15 from the floor, including 1-of-5 from beyond the 3-point arc.

“They didn’t want me to shoot while I was out,” Harrison said. “I had to be free of the symptoms for 48 hours before they’d let me back.

“I need to get in the gym and shoot because a lot of my shots were short. We weren’t in sync on offense and I don’t know if that has anything to do with me being out or whatever, but we need to get back into it.”

Defense much improved

Tech’s staff went into this season hoping to see improvement on the defensive end and much of the Hokies’ early-season success can be attributed to how well they’ve played defensively.

Tech forced at least 20 turnovers in each of its first four games and six of its first eight. In arguably its best win, Tech forced VCU to commit 22 turnovers and held the Rams to just 36.4 percent shooting from the floor.

Most of VCU’s scoring came from the talented Courtney Hurt, who scored a game-high 26 points. But she made just 6-of-21 from the floor and committed a game-high eight turnovers.

“We talked about what would be the keys for this game and we felt we needed to be better defensively,” Dunkenberger said. “To hold them to 61 points in an overtime game, that’s a good defensive game. So when your shots aren’t falling and you’re missing free throws, you can still be in the game.”

Only two of Tech’s first eight opponents shot better than 41 percent from the floor. Florida Gulf Coast, the preseason pick to win the Atlantic Sun Conference, hit 44.1 percent and made 13 3-pointers against the Hokies in Cancun. Not coincidentally, the Hokies lost 73-65.

“It’s been solid,” Dunkenberger said of her team’s defense. “We have held teams, but we need to create more from our defense. Again, that comes with intensity.”

Wilson with back-to-back career nights

Aerial Wilson, a sophomore from Cocoa, Fla., was one of the bright spots for the Hokies in their 72-43 loss to No. 20 Iowa in the Caribbean Challenge played in Cancun, Mexico, over the Thanksgiving holiday.

The backup guard scored a career-high 11 points despite hitting just 4-of-14 from the floor. At the time, the performance marked her second double-figure performance of the season, as she scored a then career-high 10 points in the Hokies’ win over Elon on Nov. 14.

But Wilson played even better in the Hokies’ game after that Iowa loss. She set another career high, scoring 14 points in Tech’s 63-58 loss to Minnesota. She hit 6-of-13 from the floor, including 1-of-2 from the 3-point arc and played a career-high 29 minutes. She also dished out three assists.