As Jocionna Stowers dribbled back and forth, KK Jackson-Morris waved her arms frantically in the air in the final minutes of a blowout. Stowers didn’t circle out near the perimeter and wait for a screen like many players do in that situation.
She played with the basketball and looked like she might make a move to the basket. But when she realized that a foot of space separated her from her defender, she aimed and swish.
Jackson-Morris spun around on the bench with a smile on her face. She was relieved her teammate made the heady play.
The college’s women’s basketball team have basked in these types of moments during games this season. Monday night’s 85-65 victory over No. 3-ranked Highlands Community College was no different. The latest win not only inflated their record to 22-1, but also kept their No. 1 ranking across the National Junior College Athletic Association Division-II standings intact.
“This team is really together, like we all are really close, there’s not an odd man out,” Stowers said. “That’s the big difference from last year to this year. Last year we were together, but this year we are family. That just shows our success on the court, our chemistry is so strong.”
The Cavaliers have defeated their opponents in all but one of their games this season, and the numbers back it up. The college ranks eighth, 10th, and 11th, in the NJCAA in points scored per game (82.2), points allowed per game (52.9) and total rebounds per game (51.1) respectively. Not to mention they are outscoring opponents by an average of 29.3 points a night.
So, what’s been at the root of the team’s success? According to head coach Ben Conrad, the crux to the team’s efficient averages on both-ends of the floor lies in their dribble-drive motion offense, a half-court style which features four guards around one big.
“A lot of sets we run are to get people in the right spots [on offense],” Conrad said. “We love to play fast, shoot and get out in transition.”
Another factor in the team’s proficient numbers this season, Conrad says, has been the ability to control the glass consistently. Currently, the Cavaliers have four players who are averaging at least four rebounds per game (Julia Johnson, Syndi Tears, Jadah Anderson and Jackson-Morris).
“Our program puts a big focus on out-rebounding our opponents and getting after it on the glass,” Conrad said. “We are smaller [than most teams] because we play four guards, but I think there’s technique to our success. The ability to rebound and run. If you can get defensive rebounds, you can run. Defensive rebounding is all about positioning, and offensive rebounding is about getting people to go.”
Mentioned already, depth is critical in Conrad’s system. A total of eight players are averaging at least 10 minutes per game. However, playing time is not a given with Conrad, who says a player’s minutes are determined through performance and in-game matchups.
“At the college level, you’re not necessarily concerned about everyone getting playing time as much as you are finding the right rotation to give you the best chance to win,” Conrad said. “Some years you’re going to play a lot of kids, some years you’ll play fewer. We have some kids that are very strong attacking zone, understanding those spaces and those angles.”
The development of Stowers and Jackson-Morris has spearheaded the team as well. Following a season in which she only played 12 minutes per game as a freshman, Stowers, guard, sophomore, has upped her production in nearly every statistical category in 2018-19, such as points (from 11.1 per game to 14.2), assists (1.3 to 2.6) and made three-pointers (2.8 to 3.0).
“She was up-and-down her freshman year, but you could see glimpses of her being pretty special,” Conrad said. “This year she’s making a jump in productivity, and she’s eliminated mistakes she made last year, breakdowns on both end of the floor.”
Similarly, Jackson-Morris, guard, freshman, is thriving this season, averaging 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, along with 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc. Her success, while admirable, isn’t a shock to Conrad, who says her background playing high school ball at Incarnate Word in St. Louis, Missouri, where she won three state titles, has prepared her for this moment.
“Your success as a freshman really depends on the program you’re coming from and the coach you had at high school,” Conrad said. “The reality is [Jackson-Morris] comes from one of the best high school programs in the country. She’s been well-coached her whole career. Her learning curve wasn’t that high because she’s already done all the stuff we do here, like playing man-to-man defense. She was well-prepared coming in as a freshman.”
Jackson-Morris acknowledges that while her high school groomed her for this stage, a lion’s share of the credit goes out to her father and her sister, who also plays basketball at DePaul University in Chicago.
“My high school was better than everyone else we played in the regular season,” Jackson-Morris said. “But when [Incarnate Word] played in the playoffs, we had to prepare differently each night for different teams. My dad used to be my coach and he was big on sports, and my sister, who also plays college basketball, forced me to go to the gym and work out every day.”
Now, as the team heads into the thick of conference play, Conrad admits that despite their phenomenal start, finishing the regular season off on a positive note will be the toughest task next month.
“Margins are always going to be smaller in conference play because of familiarity,” Conrad said. “Our league is the best in the country and it’s not close. We have three teams in the top 4 in the national polls with Highlands, KCK and us.”
For the Cavaliers, the key to ending the season strong is simple: know the details, fine-tune their technique and refine their defense.