Rebuilding or Reloading?
Bulls Turn to New Big Three" To Lead Them To Greater Heights
When Tiffany Bell, Sonia Ortega and Mari McClure donned their graduation caps and gowns, the UB women's basketball program lost more than the heart and soul of their team. They also lost 75 percent of their offense. To put it in perspective, all returning players from last year's squad averaged under 10 points per game for the 2000-01 campaign.
"I have trouble recognizing their faces in practice. There are a lot of new people out here," said women's basketball head coach Cheryl Dozier.
This year has rebuilding written all across the hardwood of Alumni Arena, right? Not if you talk to the girls, who are trying to avenge last year's heartbreaking 65-64 first-round loss at home to the Akron Zips in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament courtesy of a last second 3-point buzzer beater by the Zips' Cheryl Bowles. In fact, this team won't be happy unless they surpass last year's record of 19-9.
"We have the talent, it's just a question of how soon we mesh it together. This is not rebuilding; this is refocusing," said Dozier.
"Coach wants us to win more games than last year. In fact, it's unacceptable if we don't. We're looking to win a MAC championship," said sophomore forward Jessica Kochendorfer, the team's leading returning scorer from last year at 7.4 points per game.
Dozier, who rode former head coach Sal Buscaglia's recruits to a second-place finish in the MAC East Division last year, thinks that she has found three promising recruits of her own.
"I don't have last year's big three, but I think I do have a big three this year," said Dozier. "I have Kate [McMeeken-Ruscoe], Virginia [Jennings] and Jessica, and those kids are going to be the kids that are going to be asked to step up for games. We graduated the big three, and that's a tremendous loss for the program. But that's what happens when you have seniors, they've got to graduate. Although we're young, we do have talented kids still here in the program."
Here is a look at the Bulls' starting five, and who they have coming off the bench.
Jennings went from last year's freshman sweetheart to being this year's co-captain. As a member of the supporting cast, Jennings averaged 4.8 points and 2.6 assists per game last season. She raised eyebrows in last season's first-round match-up against Akron, almost single handedly leading the Bulls past the Zips with a career-high 20 points, including five 3-pointers.
Jennings knows she will be asked to pick up the scoring void left by the departure of "the big three."
"It's a little bit of pressure. Last year, I was more of a role player. I had Sonia and Mari on both sides of me, and the big girl All-American in the middle. So I definitely feel more pressure to step up and look to score more," she said. "Last year, I would make the shots when they were there once in a while, but now I'm going to look more for that."
McMeeken-Ruscoe was born in New Zealand, played basketball in Hawaii, and then transferred to Buffalo. Believe it or not, weather did not factor into her decision to play in Buffalo.
"Because I chose so long to wait to leave, it was really difficult to get to schools," she said. "My original choice was to stay on the West Coast, because I love the sun and I love the warm weather. But, I'm into fate and that sort of thing and a video fell into Coach's hands, and I just felt it was fate pretty much."
McMeeken-Ruscoe is an excellent outside shooter and will be looked on to pick up a lot of the scoring slack on the wing. In limited action in Hawaii, she averaged 3.3 points per game, but scored 22 points in two starts - both against Texas Christian - while tying a school record with six 3-pointers. The 5'9" junior may be the best pure shooter on the team, and might end up being its leading scorer.
While the battle is still open for the starting position, it appears true freshman Erin Lawrenson has the inside track heading into the season opener Spartan Chevrolet Classic at Michigan State.
Lawrenson is a streaky shooter who, when on, can knock shots down from anywhere inside half court. She averaged 25 points per game in her senior year at Elkland High School in Pennsylvania, and appears ready to take her game to the next level.
Challenging Lawrenson for playing time will be Allison Bennett. Bennett's statistics are almost identical to Lawrenson's and she set a school record last year with eight 3-pointers in a game at Kenton Ridge High School in Ohio.
Kochendorfer burst onto the MAC stage last year, becoming the Bulls' second-best threat inside the paint behind the Bell. Her 7.4 points per game from a season ago are skewed, though. She saw very limited playing time until she claimed a starting role midway through the season, after which her production soared.
At 6'1", Kochendorfer has the size to be a dominant force in the middle, but also can run as well as any of the league's big women. Her smooth transition game will be an integral part of helping UB's fast-paced offense put up points.
Rachel Martin was another player who made huge strides through the 2000-01 season, and is now being rewarded with a starter's role for the first time in her career. The native of Kenmore, N.Y. was voted the team's most improved player after averaging 3.9 points per game in her sophomore campaign. Martin will be asked to hold her own on the boards, another question mark that remains after Bell's graduation.
The Bulls may be aided next semester by the return of Kim Kilpela. The 6'1" sophomore had an excellent freshman campaign in 1999-2000 on court, ranking second on the team with 10.3 points per game, including a season-high 33 points against Marshall. Unfortunately, her academic performance did not quite reach those lofty heights, forcing her to sit out the 2000-01 season. If Kilpela meets academic requirements, her return will provide UB with another strong inside presence and she will vie with Martin for a starting position.
Roselyn Dominico, Jana Richtrova and Deb Sellan will provide UB with depth and experience at the guard positions. Their roles in the locker room may well surpass their role on court by keeping this young team focused and leading them to success in the MAC.
Dozier returns for her fourth year behind the Bulls' bench. Thus far, she has compiled a stellar 52-32 career record. She served for nine years as an assistant at Michigan State, helping them win a Big 10 championship, as well as make two second-round appearances in the NCAA's.
At Buffalo, her biggest accomplishment was leading the Bulls to a dramatic 95-89 upset win over the nationally ranked - and perennial ACC powerhouse - North Carolina Tar Heels in last season's home opener.
Dozier is aided by her assistants Kevin Eckert and Cheri Euler, who are back for their fourth campaigns, and Stephanie Schueler, who will enter her initial season as a Bulls assistant.
Looking at the back of the basketball media guide, there are a lot of unfamiliar faces staring back at us. The fact is that this is a young, freshman-laden line-up with a lot of potential. Will that potential translate into victories? In our opinion, the team will experience growing pains but will eventually mesh together into a formidable unit. Look for this team to get stronger as the season goes on, just in time to make a splash in the MAC Tournament.