Women’s basketball leans on young core after injuries remove key starters

Media Credit: Hadley Chittum | Staff Photographer

Graduate student guard Ariel Stephenson is an anchor for a starting lineup comprised of mostly younger players.

Women’s basketball has looked toward its younger crop of players to fill in for a battered veteran lineup.

Injuries have plagued the Colonials (3-3), with three of their former starters sitting on the sidelines. Underclassmen have accounted for a majority of the team’s offense, but the return of graduate student Ariel Stephenson has provided an anchor on both the offensive and defensive ends.

“Defensively, she’s such a calming presence because she’s constantly talking,” head coach Jennifer Rizzotti said. “I really just want our young guys to absorb every second that they have to play with that kid.”

The Colonials currently hold a scoring margin of minus eight, averaging just 57 points to their opponents’ 65 per game. Players have outshot their opponents despite scoring fewer points, hitting 41 percent from the field and 39 from behind the arc compared to their opponents’ 39 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

Freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores comprise 64.8 percent of the team’s total offense. Redshirt freshman guard Tori Hyduke and freshman forward Faith Blethen lead the team in minutes, averaging more than 30 minutes on the court.

Rizzotti said that while the brunt of the offensive and defensive load has fallen on the young members of the team, the players’ mental toughness has helped keep them steady on the course.

“These young guys, they’re not just the future of our program, but they’re the ‘now’ of our program,” Rizzotti said. “And they came in with an expectation of being better than we were last year. And so now they have to carry the load.”

Stephenson’s return has also bolstered the squad. She stepped on the court for the first time in the team’s win over Memphis Nov. 17. Rizzotti said Stephenson and graduate student forward Alexandra Maund provide years of experience they can pass down to the young core of the team and help improve the squad’s overall chemistry.

“If our freshmen can learn over the course of the next three months from our two graduate transfers, Alex and Ariel, we’re going to be in a much better place over the course of the next couple years because they bring a wealth of experience,” Rizzotti said.

Stephenson has averaged 21.3 minutes per game and eight points per game. Rizzotti added that Stephenson is not up to form physically yet, but her mental toughness in late-game situations has aided the team in close games.

Redshirt junior guard Sydney Zambrotta started the season as a cog in the Colonial’s starting offense, contributing 29 minutes per game and leading the team with 13.3 points per game. But her recent stress fracture has thrown a wrench into the lineup sheet, placing her in a boot for a “few weeks,” Rizzotti said.

“We’re hoping at some point in December we’ll see her back in a uniform,” she said.

Rizzotti said sophomore guard Maddie Loder has stepped up since Zambrotta’s injury, highlighting her ability to score while driving toward the basket and from outside the arc during the road win over Memphis.

Loder notched a season-high 18 points in the team’s win against Memphis and is shooting at a .455 clip from beyond the arc, going 5-of-11 on the year. She has also made 12-of-19 shots from the field.

Maund was also a starter until she suffered an ankle injury in the Colonials’ home game against Princeton Nov. 10. Prior to her injury, she has averaged 20 minutes and nine points per game.

“Alex should be the first one to return,” Rizzotti said. “We’re not sure when that will be yet but she’s probably a week or two out.”

Rizzotti said junior forward Neila Luma is unlikely to return for six weeks because of her recent knee sprain after a game against Maryland. Luma was a go-to defender for the Colonial defense, averaging 25.6 minutes and five rebounds per game.

Rizzotti said the team aims to bring everyone back to good health when Atlantic 10 play rolls around. The squad’s conference schedule begins Jan. 4 at George Mason.

She added that she hopes the injuries will serve as a learning experience for the team as they work to return to full strength.

“I think it’s really important for all three of them to learn a lot while they’re sitting out so that they’re really ready, mentally engaged and ready for when they come back,” Rizzotti said. “With all these young guys gathering all these minutes right now, it’s just going to make us better when we start to insert our older players back into the lineup.”

The Colonials will return to the court at the Smith Center next Sunday against Coppin State. Tip-off is slated for 2 p.m.

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