With no seniors and only a handful of returnees from last season’s special 24-win, East Coast Conference championship team, Molloy College women’s basketball head coach Joe Pellicane is expecting some growing pains in 2017-18.
“It’s the youngest team I’ve coached in 30 years,” said Pellicane, who guided the Lady Lions to their first ECC title in seven years, a pair of NCAA Tournament victories, and a spot in the Sweet 16. “We’re going to go through the peaks and valleys together,” he added. “This group makes practice a pleasure and we talk about getting better every day. We see growth already.”
Molloy, which finished 12-6 against ECC rivals last winter, opened defense of its conference title on Dec. 2 at the University of the District of Columbia and came away with a hard-fought 79-75 road win. Sophomore Kathryn Gibson came off the bench to score a team-high 20 points, including going 11-for-13 from the line, junior McKayla Hernandez added 13 points, and freshman Melody Prichard chipped in 10.
“Every conference game is important, whether it’s December, January or February,” Pellicane said. “I don’t know if it’s going to compare with last season when us and Queens were in the Sweet 16, which was the first time in ECC history it had two teams get that far, but the conference is going to be very competitive.”
Though Pellicane always considers the scoreboard secondary, the Lady Lions won five of their first eight overall. “Consistency is always a challenge for a young team,” he said. “We’ve lost three games by three points and I’m expecting many conference games to be single-digit affairs.
“These young ladies have a desire to grow and learn,” he added. “When they make a mistake, I just want them to learn from it and move on to the next play.”
Molloy returned two starters, Hernandez and fellow junior guard Ihnacinse Grady, and its big backcourt spark off the bench, Gibson. Prichard is one of six freshmen on the roster.
Grady started all 31 games she appeared in last season and led the team in minutes per game (34.9) while averaging 8.8 points and nearly three assists. “Ihnacinse might only be 5-foot-2, but she has a great handle, scores and defends,” Pellicane said. Grady had a career-high 10 assists in the win at District of Columbia and led the team in scoring (11.1 ppg), assists (4.1 apg) and steals through eight games.
Grady and Hernandez are both captains and interchangeable in the backcourt. Both can run the point. Hernandez, who made 27 starts last season, is a tenacious defender who is contributing more offense than ever before, Pellicane said. “A bunch of coaches put McKayla up for the all-defensive team,” he noted. “That speaks volumes.”
Gibson stepped up her game in the postseason as a freshman and has picked up where she left off, the coach said. She’s averaging 9.3 points and shooting 86 percent from the line. “She had a pair of 20-point performances as a freshman and is one of the finest shooters in the league,” Pellicane said. “She’s a game-changer off the bench. She basically plays starter minutes.”
Prichard, Gabriella Aspuru and Marthe Guirand — all freshmen — started each of the first eight games along with Hernandez and Grady. “Everyone’s got to make contributions,” Pellicane said. “It’s always better to have three, four or five players score in double figures than one get 25. So far we see a lot of positive attributes.”
Prichard is averaging 8.3 points, Aspuru 7.1 and Guirand 6.5. Aspuru is leading the way on the glass with 8.0 rebounds per game, while Guirand is adding 6.5 while also leading the team in shooting percentage from the field. Sophomore Maya Joyner, who appeared in 17 games last season, and freshman Abigail Duvivier are also seeing considerable playing time.
A challenging non-conference schedule featuring Caldwell (64-48 loss on Nov. 21), Pace (Dec. 13) and Bentley (Dec. 30) will provide Pellicane with a barometer to see where his young team stands before the calendar flips to January and the heart of ECC action takes place.
“I’m hoping we’ll be a real competitive team come February,” he said.