Looking back at D-I, A-Sun debut

Basketball teams surpass expectations despite early struggles

With both the men’s and women’s NCAA championship games completed, the college basketball season has come to a close.

For Northern Kentucky University, basketball ended when the Norse women lost a first-round matchup while hosting the College of Charleston during the Women’s Basketball Invitational on March 20.

The Norse men’s season ended earlier in March with a loss at the University of San Francisco in the team’s regular-season finale.

The tournament appearance capped a successful first season at the Division I level for the women’s team, which exceeded expectations. Though the men’s team was not selected for a postseason tournament, it surpassed preseason predictions as well.

Both teams were predicted to finish last in the Atlantic Sun Conference in both media and coaches preseason polls. However, the women finished fourth in the conference, posting a 12-6 conference record and 15-13 overall. The men finished sixth in the A-Sun, going 9-9 in conference play and finishing 11-16 overall.

Historically, both Norse teams appear to have finished in a middle ground in terms of first-year Division I success.

According to Sports Information Director Don Owen, the women of Southern Illinois-Edwardsville finished their first Division I season in 2008-09 with a record of 5-24, while South Dakota State finished on the opposite end of things with a record of 21-7 in 2004-05.

On the men’s side, Savannah State made the move to Division I and finished 0-28 in their first season in 2004-05. Old Dominion set the mark for success during a Division I transition, finishing 25-4 in 1976-77.

Men’s head coach Dave Bezold was pleased with the response of his team after struggling early in the season, crediting veteran players with helping turn things around, leading to the surprising finish.

The men’s team started the season 0-6 before recording its first victory with a 54-52 win over Hampton University.

“After we started 0-6, the seniors did a heck of a job keeping things together,” Bezold said.

Senior guard/forward Eshaunte Jones, who averaged nearly 16 points per game, played a key role not only in keeping the team moving forward, but also in a late-season surge that saw the men win seven of their last 12 games.

Fellow seniors Ethan Faulkner and Ernest Watson also played pivotal roles. Faulkner, a guard, had 89 assists for the year, averaging 3.3 per game. Watson’s presence was felt strongly on the defensive side of the game, where he led the team with 18 blocks while averaging 5.4 rebounds per game.

Junior guard Chad Jackson provided a solid veteran presence as well. Jackson started all 27 games, leading the Norse with 151 total rebounds and averaging 10.1 points per game on the year.

According to Bezold, adjusting to a new level of competition throughout the season was critical to the team’s success on the way to exceeding expectations.

“The level was different. We had to make adjustments,” he said. “The size and physicality of the teams we played was different.”

However, Bezold hesitated to describe his satisfaction in surpassing those expectations, preferring to anticipate further success in the future, showing a desire for his team to constantly improve.

“As a coach, you always want to win more games,” he said.

The Norse women’s team followed a similar path to that of the men’s team, losing the first four games before recording its first win against Youngstown State in a 66-64 contest.

Women’s head coach Dawn Plitzuweit said that simply being competitive in the early season losses was enough to give her team some of the confidence that it needed to turn things around.

“It helps knowing that you are in games. We lost our first four but they were all close,” she said. “That really helped our players to believe that in tight game situations, we could perform well.”

Veterans led the way for the Norse throughout the season. Junior guard Kayla Thacker led the team in scoring, averaging 11.2 points per game, while senior forward Tiara Hopper averaged 10.7 points and six rebounds per game.

While the veteran presence was crucial, a pair of freshmen made their mark as well. Freshman guard Christine Roush started 26 of 28 games, averaging 8.1 points per game. Freshman Rianna Gayheart, also a guard, averaged 8.1 points per game as well, contributing from the bench in all 28 games.

Plitzuweit praised the freshmen for working their way into the lineup and was pleased that both received attention from the A-Sun for various performances throughout the season.

Roush was named Atlantic Sun Conference Newcomer of the Week early in the season, while Gayheart was recognized for the same distinction twice later in the season.

“Christine and Rianna played a lot of minutes for us,” said Plitzuweit. “Both of them were rewarded for their work ethic by being on the court and also being recognized by the conference.”

Plitzuweit believes the strong season was a result of the players working hard, but also enjoying things while facing big moments and challenges along the way.

“If you enjoy the journey, and work within those moments, and you really get after it, good things can happen,” she said. “And I really believe that’s what our players did.”