Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature

Women’s basketball team ganging up on a new beginning

When the DU women’s basketball team ran into the gym in South Alabama for pregame warm-ups last season, fans were shocked. Coach Erik Johnson had only seven players.

Fans scratched their heads, he recalls, and looked around as if to say: “Hey, coach, did you leave the rest of your team on the plane? You want us to get you a smaller bench?”

Johnson endured it, even as South Alabama threw 11 players at his Pioneers squad in a bid to run them to exhaustion. It didn’t work. DU used six players and won at the buzzer.

“We found ways to win on a lot of those trips,” he says nine months later, still amazed that his team went 18–13 overall and 12–6 in the Sun Belt Conference with so few players. Despite the success, a thin lineup is a problem he doesn’t want to repeat, and this season he won’t have to.

“We have six freshmen who are really good,” he says happily. Plus four of the best players in the conference in Brianna Culberson, Kaetlyn Murdoch, Britteni Rice and Emi Smith; redshirts Abbey Leichliter and Morgan Shell, who both had to sit out last season; and Sarah Feeney, a solid reserve. All told, that’s a baker’s dozen of high octane talent that Johnson intends to throw at opponents this year like a Molotov cocktail.

“What depth is going to do is add things to our game we could not do last year,” he says. No more conservative play to keep from fouling or getting tired. This year, Johnson wants to go at opponents aggressively, to force turnovers, grab rebounds and knock teams numb with sprint-hard, crash-the-boards, run-you-into-the-ground intensity.

“This year we can use athleticism, force people out of their offense, out of their tempo,” Johnson says. “Hold me accountable. We are going to do a better job of getting to the offensive glass and forcing turnovers. If we add those things to the rest of our game, we should be a pretty good team.”

Post player Murdoch has the message already. “This year I want to be relentless,” she says. “That’s my word. Relentless. And that’s what I’ve been working on. Being consistent and relentless. A force down low.”

She pauses and smiles a predator’s grin. “I don’t want to hurt people on purpose, but I’ll tackle somebody for the ball.”

That kind of intensity helped get Murdoch picked to this year’s preseason first team in the Sun Belt Conference and senior guard Rice to the third team. Overall, DU was picked second in the West Division behind Arkansas–Little Rock, which stymied the Pioneers last season as did Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. “We’ve got to find a way to get over the hump and get those guys,” Johnson says.

But that’s a problem that won’t begin until the end of the year. Of more immediate concern is facing up to the challenge of playing two of the top 25 teams in the nation in No. 19 Georgia and No. 24 Vanderbilt. In between those powerhouses will be Montana and Montana State, picked No. 1 and No. 4 respectively in the Big Sky Conference, and Wyoming and Colorado State, No. 5 and No. 8. in the Mountain West.

“Last year CU and CSU were our marquee games,” Johnson jokes. “This year, they’re our warm-up games.”

The idea behind scheduling such a tough, non-conference round of opponents, he explains, is to battle-test his team for the Sun Belt games, which begin in late December.

“If you want to win the conference tournament, these are the games that get you ready,” he says.

What he doesn’t say is what the schedule implies: that unless DU can steal some wins on the road, the Nov. 16 home opener against CU may be the Pioneers’ best chance for victory in its first eight games. “Every one of those games is winnable, but every one is losable.”

Murdoch bubbles anyway.

“I’m really looking forward to playing CU,” she says. “Last year, we had a really good first half against them and then fell apart. It’ll be nice to go back at them and see what we’re made of.”

Helping the cause, perhaps, is that CU is picked to finish last in the Big 12.

Doesn’t matter to Murdoch, who draws inspiration from the Miley Cyrus song “The Climb,” about striving to reach a goal.

“We’ve got the strongest team we’ve had number wise and talent wise,” she says. “There are so many dimensions to this team. It’s going to be a really good year.”

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