Last year, the LIU Brooklyn Athletic Department decided it was time to make a change in the women’s basketball program. The department made a head coaching change and hired Marist grad and former Seton Hall assistant Stephanie Oliver in May of 2015 to turnaround what had become a dormant program.
When Oliver arrived at LIU last season, she knew she was in for quite a challenge. The challenge was made even more difficult when several players decided to either transfer out or no longer be a part of the basketball team.
When the 2015-16 season began, Oliver and her coaching staff were left with just nine available scholarship players and no incoming freshmen that would be the building blocks for the immediate rebuilding of the program.
The team was picked to finish dead last in the NEC coaches poll and there were many that wondered if LIU could even match the nine wins the team had the season prior. Things even got more difficult for Oliver as injuries besieged her team to a point where she only had six players available.
Even with all injuries and shortness of depth, Oliver managed to get her team to win nine games to indeed match the win total of 2015-16 team and win seven NEC games and qualifying for the NEC tournament, earning the seventh seed.
“I was so proud.” Oliver said of her team last season. “I said it even after we lost, the coaches will take the loss. I think they worked hard. They always gave their all. Going on the road and beating Navy in overtime was amazing. St. Francis Brooklyn, we finally won the Battle of Brooklyn for the first time, in overtime, in years. We gave everybody else a run. We never quit. Even when Florida State came in and we lost by thirty-something points, we never quit. Even their coach after the game was like, ‘Your team played so hard. It stinks playing a team that never gives up.’ I think that’s why we may have a little bit of a bullseye on our back because the girls, regardless of the score, are always playing hard. I think we’re going to able to build on that this year.”
Now, Oliver begins year two of her tenure and it almost feels like it is the start of year one once again. Gone are four seniors from last season including second-leading scorer and top assist player in Shanice Vaughn and top rebounder in Jolanna Ford.
This season truly begins the rebuilding of the women’s basketball program as eight new players will step on the floor for the first time as Blackbirds including five freshmen to go along with six returning players.
The Blackbirds this season were picked to finish fifth in the NEC in the recently announced 2016 NEC preseason coaches poll which is the highest poll ranking they have received in five years. The preseason ranking is an obvious sign of respect shown to Oliver and her coaching staff for the incredible job they were able to do with the roster they had last season.
“I’m really proud of the team that we’re respected enough to get that ranking.” Oliver said. “I think it’s because of the way we played towards the end of the year was what got us there. But again, it’s preseason. It is always a good goal to go higher than what your ranked.”
LIU will have the luxury of last season’s top scorer, senior guard Shanovia Dove, returning back for her senior season. The 5’8” shooting guard was named to the 2016 Preseason All-NEC preseason after averaging 15 points per game in 26 games last season. She will be counted on heavily to provide some much needed scoring to a team that finished ninth in the NEC in scoring offense at 58 points per game.
“I was injured for a couple of weeks last season and it was hard and challenging watching (the team) struggle out there. I wanted to be out there to help them.” said Dove. “We have really good players this year and to look down the line when we’re in practice, to see that we have the whole baseline filled is pretty good.”
The other returning senior is 5’9” guard Brianna Farris who played in all thirty games last season and averaged 7.8 ppg while shooting 35 percent from the floor and was LIU’s leading free throw shooter at 86 percent. Farris finished just behind Dove in three-pointers made and attempted last season and she will be once again needed to provide perimeter scoring.
Oliver added a grad transfer in 5’6” guard Dionne Coe who comes over from Weber State after playing one season there. Coe played in twenty-eight games last season but averaged just ten minutes per game. Coe will likely see a lot more playing time this season.
The other point guard is junior guard Paris Jones. She missed the last thirteen games of last season with a knee injury but she is back and fully healthy and could possibly start off the season as the starting point guard. Expect her to see a lot of minutes this season as well. Before her injury, Jones was averaging 9.4 points per game and led LIU in three-point shooting percentage at 34 percent.
Another Blackbird guard returning back from injury is 5’7” redshirt sophomore Drew Winter. She missed the entire 2015-16 season with a knee injury but she is also back healthy. Winter played in all thirty games her freshman year, averaging 3.7 points per game but she had a miserable season shooting the ball, making just 23 percent of her shots and making just six of thirty-four three-point attempts. She faces plenty of competition for minutes this season behind both Farris and Dove in the off-guard position with some of the new arrivals. She may have some pressure on her early in the season to make some shots and keep her spot in the rotation.
Another returnee is junior guard/forward Stylz Sanders. She also played in all thirty games last season and has yet to miss a game for LIU in two seasons. Sanders came up big last season for a depleted LIU team and she more than doubled her scoring output of her freshman to average just under six points per game and 4.5 rebounds per game. She played nearly thirty minutes a game last season and although she probably won’t have to play as many minutes, she should be another key figure off Oliver’s bench this season and provide LIU with help rebounding and scoring around the rim.
The final returnee is 6’0” junior forward DeAngelique Waithe. She also was one of four players last season to play in all thirty games. Waithe also increased her scoring and rebounding averages last season from her freshman season and actually finished second on the team in rebounding with 5.8 boards per game to go along with thirteen blocked shots. Waithe will get some help this season in the front line with some of the new additions brought in by Oliver. She was just one of two players last season who were available who were above 5’10”.
“The girls (last season) bought into the coaching style. They bought into the staff. They worked really hard.” said Oliver of her returning players.
Two players who had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules were redshirt junior Mackenzie Freeman and sophomore Kandance Satterwhite. Freeman transferred over from Illinois State where she played in 52 games and made nine starts over two seasons. Freeman averaged 2.1 ppg and 1.8 rpg while at Illinois State. Satterwhite transferred to LIU Brooklyn from Buffalo where she left after one semester and didn’t play for the Bulls. Satterwhite won’t be eligible to play until after the end of the fall semester. Both are tall guards at 5’9” and 5’10” respectively. Freeman could likely see some front court minutes at times this season.
With numerous scholarships at her disposal last season, Oliver and her staff hit the recruiting trail hard to find what they feel would be foundation pieces for the rebuilding of their program. They ended up recruiting five new freshmen which immediately added both height and depth to the LIU roster.
“All five (freshmen) brings something else to the table, like different pieces to a puzzle.” said Oliver of her freshman class. “All five freshmen are completely different basketball players, completely different people. Not one is like, ‘oh my god’ standing out but they all every single day brings something else to the table.”
5’7” guard Victoria Powell from North Carolina who has the final one of the five freshmen to commit to LIU, was actually quite impressive when I visited LIU’s practice in mid-October. Powell has the ability to both take the ball to the rim and knock down the long perimeter shot. Powell is a combo guard who could see a good amount of playing time this season.
5’10” guard/forward Autumn Ashe from Silver Spring, Maryland which is an area known well on LIU men’s basketball side as former Blackbirds Jamal Olasewere and C.J. Garner where both from there. Ashe is a strong perimeter shooter who is probably more comfortable playing in the backcourt but will likely see some time in the front court also. 5’11” guard Seneca Richards comes to Brooklyn all the way from Mesa, Arizona. Richards is long shooting guard who could fill it up in high school. LIU will be looking for her perimeter offense as LIU shot just 30 percent as a team from three last season. Her 5’11” frame should cause a lot of matchup problems for opponents especially when it comes to NEC play.
Oliver also added two bigs with much needed size in 6’0” forward Gabrielle Caponegro and 6’2” center Aja Boyd. Oliver didn’t have to go far to bring in Caponegro who played at Saint John Vianney in Holmdel, New Jersey. Gigi, as she is better known as, helped her team win a NJ state championship last season. She is considered an excellent post player with good passing skills and a great team player. She also has versatility to her game where could play in any front court position. Boyd will be the tallest player in Oliver’s first two seasons at LIU. Boyd was named player of the year in her district last season as she dominated in senior year. She should see plenty of playing time this season and wouldn’t surprise me if she cracks the starting lineup from game one. Her size, rebounding and post play should add a much needed dimension to LIU offensive attack.
“Size is always good.” said Oliver. “It helps us defensively. It helps us offensively. We can change up our offense compared to last year. It’s nice to have size. I think it gives our guards confidence that if they miss that somebody is going to get the rebounds and if they pass the ball inside, they are going to be able to score.”
Stephanie Oliver feels this team can get out in transition and play fast and with the depth she finally has this season, she can afford to play a rotation of ten players and spread out minutes to keep her players fresh and have something left in the tank in the end of games.
“We want to play fast.” said Oliver. “We want to run. We want to move. We want to change up our defenses at much as possible, keep ’em on their toes. With our bench, nobody should be playing forty minutes. We want to get people moving, we want to get them in and out. We want fresh legs. We want to run, whether it is our post players, our guards, we want to move. Everyone can handle the ball on our team from our center to our point guard so I think running and playing a fast-paced transition game will be beneficial to us.”
“I always like to play fast.” said Dove. “I played fast all my years in high school. That was the style we played. Fast is always to good to me because I’m quick.”
LIU Brooklyn will begin their 2016-17 season this coming Saturday, November 12th when they host Army West Point at the Steinberg Wellness Center. Five of their eleven non-conference games will be at home with their December 12th game against UMBC being played at the Barclays Center in a doubleheader with the LIU men’s team. LIU will face some tough challenges on the road in non-conference play with games at Ohio State on November 19th and at Seton Hall on December 7th which marks the return for Stephanie Oliver where she was an assistant coach for two seasons prior to arriving at LIU Brooklyn.
This season, we should finally get our first real sense on what Oliver has in store for this women’s basketball program. This is really the foundation season for Oliver and her staff and it will be fun to see where the direction of the program goes from here. The expectations and pressures of winning a NEC championship are not here yet and nor should it be. Building a program takes time and plenty of patience.
There is plenty of work ahead for this team and this coaching staff. The objection is for this team to get better game-by-game, week-by-week and improve upon what they were able to do last season. If they do that, year two of the Oliver era will be another positive one and reaffirm that bringing Oliver to LIU was indeed not just the right choice but also the best choice.