Women’s basketball Summit League Tournament preview

After suffering a first round upset against Western Illinois last year, the Oakland University women’s basketball team (18-11, 12-6) is hoping for better results at this year’s Summit League Tournament, where the fourth-seeded Golden Grizzlies will face No. 5 Southern Utah on Sunday.

Unlike last year’s squad, this year’s team is not a favorite to win the conference championship.

“This year is a new year for us, so we’re excited for another opportunity to go to the tournament and show all the people out there that Oakland is ready,” said junior guard Sharise Calhoun. “We’re really focused for the Southern Utah game and I know my teammates are prepared.”

Top-seeded Oral Roberts defeated the Grizzlies twice this season and the Golden Eagles are considered to be the tournament frontrunners.

Oakland struggled against top Summit League competition this season, as the Grizzlies went just 1-5 against the top three seeds — ORU, IPFW and defending champion South Dakota State.

OU split the season series with its first round opponent, Southern Utah. The Grizzlies defeated SUU 68-39 at home on Dec. 2, but lost to the Thunderbirds, 60-49, on the road last weekend.

“This year is a new year for us, so we’re excited for another opportunity to go to the tournament and show all the people out there that Oakland is ready. We’re really focused for the Southern Utah game and I know my teammates are prepared.”

The key for the Grizzlies will be to avoid falling behind early as they have been prone to doing over the last month. To avoid similar results in the tournament, the team must improve its shot selection.

In the last five games, Oakland is shooting just 34.1 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from three-point range.

Those percentages drop even more when discounting the team’s 23-of-58 performance in a win against North Dakota State on Feb. 21.

For the Grizzlies to win their first conference tournament title since 2006, several players will have to find the form the team displayed early in the conference season.

Sophomore forward Bethany Watterworth averaged 17.9 points and 6.8 rebounds this season, and reached double-digit scoring in all but one game. Watterworth will need to match those averages and stay out of foul trouble for her team to have a serious chance at winning against the top teams in the Summit League.

Junior guard Sharise Calhoun was second on the team with 12.6 points per game and third in rebounding with 5.4 rebounds per game. Calhoun provided clutch play in several games down the stretch of the season, and will likely be counted on to do the same in Sioux Falls.

Calhoun’s free throw in the final seconds gave the Grizzlies a 62-61 win against IUPUI on Feb. 5, and she scored 13 points to go along with five assists, five rebounds and three steals in the team’s 63-61 win against UMKC on Monday.

After missing three games with an injury, junior Brittany Carnago returned to the Oakland lineup for the last two games of the season.

Carnago has averaged 7.0 points and 5.1 rebounds per game so far this season. The 6-foot-4 center also averages three blocks per game, which ranks 10th in the nation.

After staying relatively healthy throughout most of the 2010 season, Carnago was injured for three games late in the season.

The lack of her defensive presence was felt almost immediately. In those three games, Oakland gave up an average of 68 points per game, nearly 10 points higher than their season average of 58.9 points allowed, which ranked first in the Summit League.

Thankfully for the team, she was able to come back to play in the last two games of the regular season.

Having a healthy Carnago is crucial for the Grizzlies’ tournament hopes. Going down with a torn ACL in the first exhibition game last year, the team was left without their defensive leader for the entire season, postseason included.

“After coming back from an injury like that, you appreciate the game so much more and I appreciate every time I get to step on the court,” Carnago said. “I think all my teammates know that after seeing the struggle I went through, and we’re all focused and determined this year.”

In addition to the strong play from veterans, several of the team’s younger players have been valuable members of the rotation this season.

After injuries and player departures decimated the roster in December, many of the players had no choice but to assume a larger role. At times, the Grizzlies have played games with just eight active players on the roster.

As a result, nearly the entire roster has been able to gain valuable game experience which could prove to be beneficial once team depth comes into play.

“At the beginning of the season, I would say that we were a young and inexperienced team but because of the injuries, everyone has stepped up and everyone on the roster has started at least one game,” said head coach Beckie Francis. “I think that the new players have had so many minutes that most freshmen don’t get, that it makes us a more experienced team.”

Freshman guard Zakiya Minifee has blossomed into a rebounding phenom, averaging a team-leading 6.9 rebounds per game.

Freshman guard Malika Glover has started 10 games and averaged 5.9 points per game, while redshirt freshman guard Elizabeth Hamlet has started 12 games for Oakland, averaging 4.8 points per game and providing solid defense.

The Grizzlies have previously won the Summit League Tournament as a No. 2 seed in 2002 and as a No. 6 seed in 2006.

“Every year, I go in preparing the team for the tournament, and the fact that we’ve won it two times and gone to the NCAA tournament, the coaching staff and players who have actually played in the tournament know how to get the team ready,” said Francis. “I do feel that this team, because of the adversity they’ve seen, has come through and delivered at the toughest moments.”