The Long Beach State women’s basketball team has shattered expectations through the beginning of Big West Conference play.
Before season’s start, Long Beach was picked to finish eighth in the coaches poll. Currently, it sits at third in the conference.
The Beach (11-13, 6-5 Big West) has already totaled more wins in conference play as of Feb. 19 than last year combined.
Through 11 games last season, Long Beach was 4-7 and had completely lost its momentum, ending on a three-game losing streak to finish the regular season at 5-11.
According to head coach Jeff Cammon, the struggles from last season are a large factor in the success this year.
“It’s foundational,” Cammon said. “There’s some things we’ve done in the past where we may have sacrificed some wins for growth and the big picture is what’s important. We probably could have done some things to try to win early I think last year, but it’s all about teaching.”
Although the teams’ top shooter, junior forward Naomi Hunt, and jack-of-all-trades sophomore guard Kianna Hamilton-Fisher, have been stuck on the sidelines due to injuries, the group’s baptism-by-fire last year has propelled their team-first attitude into winning games.
“For us to be without Naomi, and we don’t talk about it,” Cammon said, “but to be without Naomi and Kianna, I’m just so proud of them because we don’t make excuses.”
With two starting-caliber players out of the rotation for the Beach, the team has come together this season with its main priority being on the less glamorous end, currently sitting at No. 11 in the nation in turnover margin (+6.83).
“What we’ve done all year defensively is take the paint away from people and make people take contested threes,” Cammon said. “If we’re taking the paint away and we’re not putting them on the foul line, you’re going to have to hit 15-20 threes to beat us.”
Sophomore guard Justina King has continued her confident play after being honored as the Big West Freshman of the Year to the tune of 13.3 points and 3.2 assists per game, all while leading the team in minutes by over 150 (almost four games worth!).
King’s running mate and backcourt partner, junior guard Shanaijah Davison, leads the team in points per game at 13.7 along with ankles broken. Davison has been nursing injuries since the end of last season and has split time between starting and acting as a super-sub.
But with the Beach’s backcourt well-known by other Big West rivals, others have had to step up to lighten the load.
Whether it be combo-guard Ma’Qhi Berry locking down defensive possessions and pushing rebounds coast-to-coast, athletic bigs Aaryon Green and Lauren Green heading the “defensive lineups” or wings Cydnee Kinslow and Jasmine Hardy hounding ball-handlers and torching twine in a three-and-D role.
“We’re just geared to go,” Cammon said. “I think that mentality prepares you more for the game. They want the reps, I have to pull them off the floor even in practice sometimes.”
Making plays in clutch moments was the Achilles heel for the Beach last season, as five of their 11 losses in conference play came by seven points or less.
“I feel like it just starts with practice,” Davison said. “I feel like we’re competing a lot more this year. It starts with defense as well, we work on our defense every single day, so I think just having a lot of energy every day, it results to big wins.”
With the hard work put in while the bright lights are turned off, Long Beach is in prime position to prove the Big West coaches wrong and secure a top-4 seed with a first-round playoff bye.
“It’s just a special culture we’re developing here and that’s why they came,” Cammon said. “These young ladies had a ton of options … but they wanted to come here and do something special.”
Long Beach State will face UC Irvine at the Walter Pyramid Thursday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m.