The first thing coach Danny O’Banion wanted to talk about at the women’s basketball team’s press day wasn’t individual players or strategy.
It was chemistry.
She said that this team — which has just four players who have ever played together in a game — has more than any team she’s coached at Kent State.
It started in the spring after last season, she said, with the returning four, plus a player who was injured last year and a walk-on who didn’t play, getting together and trying to prepare for nine new players who joined the team this summer.
And during the eight-week summer practice period, the team came together — not so much in the 10 hours a week they were allowed to practice and work on conditioning — but on their own time.
“It just felt natural,” said junior guard Larissa Lurken, the team’s leading scorer and the veteran on the team as the only upperclassman who’s ever played in a Division I game. “We’d always be together, going here or there, or just hanging out.”
O’Banion said the team talked about chasing championships like the Golden State Warriors and the Kansas City Royals, teams that were “selfless and committed.”
O’Banion had four stars from some of the best KSU teams ever talk to the team this summer. Amy Sherry, Dawn Zerman, Alana Bader and Lindsay Shearer all talked about the chemistry on their teams. “Each of those teams had good chemistry,” Lurken said, “They played for their teammates. We were always comparing our chemistry to theirs.”
O’Banion admitted Kent State would be an “unknown quantity” to the rest of the MAC and that other teams wouldn’t expect much from a team that was next to last in the conference last year. But she said the players and the coaches knew how good they could be. “I don’t think the odds are stacked against us by any means,” she said
The team has a full 15-member roster for the first time in O’Banion’s time here. (It’s the first time since the early 1990s that I can remember.) That depth allows more competitive practices at a higher tempo. As the coach talked about her players, lit was clear that a lot of them would see considerable playing time this season.
The team starts with the three players who were at press day — Lurken, point guard Naddiyah Cross and forward Jordan Korinek.
O’Banion said Korinek, Kent State’s third leading scorer and rebounder as a freshman, improved more over the summer than any player she’s coached in her four years at Kent State. “She got a lot of on-the-job training last year,” the coach said, and knew what she needed to improve.
“I’ve really worked on playing with my back to the basket and being more physical,” Korinek said. (“I think she got tired of getting beaten up out there last season,” O’Banion said.
Fans can also expect Korinek to do more outside shooting this season. In fact, the team finally has more three-point shooters than Lurken, who took a Kent State record 200 distance shots last season. O’Banion said sophomore forward McKenna Stephens, KSU’s fourth returning player, had improved her confidence in shooting; Cross said she had worked on her shot and her confidence. Freshman guards Alexa Golden and Megan Carter also can shoot the three, as well as junior college transfer Keziah Lewis.
Lurken said the other distance shooters — plus more players who could drive to the basket — would make it easier for her to score. O’Banion also said Lurken had worked very hard on her floor game to add another dimension to her play.
Cross started 15 games at point guard last season last a freshman. O’Banion said she is clearly a team leader and that she, too, had worked hard on her offense. (Last year teams barely guarded Kent State’s point guard at all. Cross and senior Mikell Chinn averaged a total of six points a game.)
Running down the roster:
Redshirt freshman Tyra James, who missed all last season with a knee injury, will be the “biggest surprise” to other teams, O’Banion said. She said the coaches asked the team this week to identify the three players who needed to score for the team to do well; they listed James, Lurken and Korinek. James is a 5-11 wing who can drive, shoot jumpers and post up. (“There aren’t a lot of players like her in the conference,” O’Banion said.) James averaged 19 points a game her senior year at Cincinnati Winton Woods High School and scored a school-record 38 against a nationally ranked opponent.
Golden was the first freshman O’Banion mentioned (“starter ability,” she said). The coach said the 5-9 guard was a “savvy defender” who has shown good three-point accuracy, somewhat surprising because she was more of a driver in high school.
Carter, an all state special mention from Michigan, is a “dynamic playmaker who manufactures her own offense.” Point guard Taylor Parker is the fastest player on the team, though she still needs to “figure out the college game more.” 6-4 post player Merissa Barber-Smith has built herself physically into a “monster.” Like graduated senior Cici Shannon, she’s a shot blocker (“she jumps better”) and should be a good contributor once she “catches up to the pace of the college game.” 6-3 post player Savannah Neace is likely to be more of a “developmental player.” (“She runs the floor like a gazelle.”) Freshman walk-on guard Paige Salisbury will challenge for playing time (“a bonus type of player who could have gotten a scholarship if she had found the right school”). Salisbury joined Kent’s team after it had given out all of its scholarships.
Junior college transfer Chelsi Watson, who’s just 5-10, has the highest vertical jump on the team (“she can dunk a tennis ball”) and is likely to take more charging calls than anyone on the team. Lewis, who scored 771 points in two years in junior college, “can score in a hurry” in a lot of ways, O’Banion said, but can also disappear if she doesn’t bear down.
The Flashes open their season with an exhibition game against Hiram at 2 p.m. Sunday in the MAC Center.