Starkey presented Lurken with a special basketball before Wednesday’s Fort Wayne game, honoring her for becoming the 20th player in KSU history to score 1,000 points in her career. (Photo from the KSU women’s Twitter feed.)
“If you had told me Larissa was going to average 23 and a half points a game at this point in the season,” coach Todd Starkey said about Larissa Lurken, his senior guard.”I’d have said you were absolutely nuts. She would have said the same thing.”
So, since she was sitting across the table in the coach’s office, I asked Lurken if she could have imagined having two 30-point games, three double-doubles and the one of the highest scoring averages in the country after eight games.
“Absolutely not,” she said with a smile.
Yet here Lurken is — someone Starkey says could even be a Player of the Year candidate in the MAC, depending on how much she continues to improve and on how well Kent State does this season.
After eight games, here are the key numbers:
Points per game: 23.6 —fourth in the country in the new NCAA statistics out Monday. It’s also best in the Mid-American Conference. That’s 10 points per game higher than Lurken averaged last year.
Free throws made: 74, first in the country.
Free throws attempted: 93, first in the country.
Three-point field goals percentage: 42.5, ninth in the MAC and a full 10 percentage points above her average for her first three seasons at Kent State.
Rebounds per game: 6.6, 11th in the MAC.
Blocked shots per game, for goodness’ sakes: 0.9 per game, 10th in the MAC.
Lurken is 5-foot-9. She blocked five shots all last season. She had more than six rebounds four times.
So it’s been quite a season so far for young woman from Cottage Grove, Minnesota.
She had been the most consistent of former coach Danny O’Banion’s recruits — fourth on the team in scoring her freshman year, first her sophomore year, second last season.
But she’s thrived under Starkey, who became coach in April after O’Banion’s contract wasn’t renewed. Her teams went 21-98 over four years, 18-81 in Lurken’s three seasons.
So far this season the Flashes are 4-4. They’ve won more non-league games than in any of Lurken’s seasons. They won only six games all last season and seven in her best previous year.
“We were ready of a change,” Lurken said. “We were ready for something else to believe in. Because obviously what we were doing wasn’t working.”
Starkey has the team playing faster and defending harder.
“I’m being a lot more aggressive this year,” Lurken said. “I’ve always been kind of just a shooter on the team. So I’ve kind of tried to change my identity. I’m drawing more contact on my drives — whether it’s getting to the free throw line or not, I’m getting the other team in foul trouble by being aggressive, which really helps everyone out because we get in bonus earlier.”
Lurken set scoring records in high school, but that was her identity.
“Rebounding is a new thing for me,” she said.
What’s been her strategy?
“The will to do it,” she said. “Knowing that in order to win, we have to get rebounds. So it’s not just about scoring. It’s not just on the offensive end. It’s crucial to get those defensive rebounds. If we don’t get those, we know we’re going to have a harder time.”
“I asked Larissa one day in practice, ‘People have pretty much told you your whole life that you’re not a good defender, right?'” Starkey said. “And she was like, ‘Yeah, no one has really expected me to be.
“I just told her, ‘You have really good defensive instincts.’ She understands the game really well. If you’re a good offensive player, you have the ability to be a good defender. It’s a matter of where to be and when to be there.
“I wasn’t just saying that to get it out of her, I was saying it because I thought it was true. And I think from that point, she’s kind of changed her mentality toward defense and said, ‘Hey, I am pretty good at this.'”
And her scoring?
“From the start, she’s been great to coach,” Starkey said. “I told her, ‘Good scorers have to get to the free throw line.’ And, well, she’s leading the nation in that.”
Part of it — for both Lurken and the team — is confidence.
“You have a player who starts growing in confidence,” Starkey said, and you can get the kind of leap in production as Kent State has seen from Lurken.
The same for the team.
In his first months, Starkey said, the team was trying to figure him out as much as he was trying to learn them.
“What’s this guy all about?” he said players were asking themselves. “What are we doing? Can we really play defense? is this system going to work? They just needed to experience some success to give us some belief.”
The next step for Lurken, the coach said, is to play well when she’s not scoring 23 points.
“As teams prepare for us now, their game plan will be how to take her away,” Starkey said.” She’s gong to have to continue to adjust to that, and she’s going to have to make sure she doesn’t get frustrated when she has an eight-point game. She’s going to have to make sure she have seven assists that game — and still has rebound totals.”
Lurken came to Kent State in pre-medicine but switched to nursing, where she has a 3.7 GPA. (She’s a two-time MAC all-academic selection.)
“I realized that I actually wanted to work with the people,” Lurken said. “I want interact with the patients. I want to actually influence them in more ways than doctors would when they come in for two seconds and leave.”
Eventually, she said, she’d like to be a nurse practitioner, which does some of the traditional duties of both a nurse and a doctor.
Lurken is in her third semester of what the school calls “clinicals,” in which she works in a hospital or medical setting for 12 hours one day a week. In preseason, Starkey often gave the team Thursdays off so they wouldn’t have to practice without her.
This semester Lurken is working in psychiatry and community medicine. Next semester — during conference season — she’ll be working in the emergency department and intensive care.
She did it last year, too, and a day after she worked a 12-hour shift, she scored 35 points against Northern Illinois. (Here is a nice profile from last spring’s Kent Stater, the university’s student newspaper, about Lurken the nursing student.)
“When you talk about the kind of players you want to coach, Larissa is exactly what we want to continue to recruit,” Starkey said. “(That is) talented players who want to get better, and players that are serious about their future outside of basketball.”
Lurken by the numbers
Games Min. FG FG% 3pt 3pt% FT FT% Ave.
2016-17 8/8 34.9 49-126 .389 17-40 .425 74-93 .798 23.6
2015-16 29/29 32.8 126-347 .347 54-171 .316 98-126 .778 13.9
2014-15 29/26 32.6 108-332 .325 62-200 .310 43-70 .614 11.1
2013-14 24/20 27.3 54-172 .314 32-96 .333 46-59 .780 7.8
Rebounds Reb ave. Assists Turnovers Blocks Steals
2016-17 14-39 6.6 10 31 7 13
2015-16 40-87 4.4 45 70 5 47
2014-15 30-56 3.0 27 53 7 25
2013-14 29-35 2.7 21 37 9 24
Rebound totals are offensive-defensive.
Lurken’s profile page from team website.
A trip to Wright State
Lurken and her teammates head to Wright State Wednesday to take on the 4-2 Raiders. Wright State was 24-11 a year ago, though the team graduated its superstar guard and lost its coach to New Mexico. (His top assistant took over the team.) It will be Wright State’s first home game; the Raiders opened with four wins on the road against below-average teams, then lost to Georgetown and Clemson in the San Juan Shootout. We’ll post a full preview tomorrow.