When senior Saadia Doyle arrived at Howard, the Bison had won four games the previous season and became an afterthought in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference after a lengthy stretch as one of the more prosperous teams in the league.
Doyle redshirted that 2008-09 season, during which Howard managed nine wins, but the 5-foot-10 guard who received all-America consideration in high school recalled a sense of budding optimism under Coach Niki Reid Geckeler, then in her first season.
In the years since, Howard has ascended to the point where Reid Geckeler and her players can think realistically about not only conference supremacy, but also an appearance in the NCAA tournament.
“I think any coach that comes in kind of has a five-year plan with where they want to go,” Reid Geckeler said earlier this week as the Bison prepared to play rival Hampton, the reigning MEAC champion, on Saturday at Burr Gymnasium. “I think the biggest part of what we do is recruit student-athletes like Saadia. They really make my life very, very simple.”
Doyle is the No. 4 scorer in the country at 23 points per game (trailing Sugar Rodgers of Georgetown, the nation’s top scorer, by 3.1 points), is averaging a team-high 9.3 rebounds and has been the central figure in the Bison’s run of seven wins in nine games, including 61-58 over Temple.
In that Jan. 4 game in the District, Doyle scored a season-high 32 points and added nine rebounds, four steals and two assists while playing all 40 minutes, and the Bison rallied from a 17-point deficit with 13 minutes 28 seconds left in regulation. Doyle scored 13 of Howard’s final 20 points, including a jumper with 1:21 to play to put the Bison ahead to stay.
It was the second game this season in which Doyle, named MEAC preseason player of the year, has scored at least 30 points, and she’s had another with 29. Among Doyle’s other notable performances included 21 points, nine rebounds and three steals in a 67-50 loss at Ohio State on Dec. 30. The Buckeyes at the time were ranked No. 24.
“I wanted to be a part of the legacy that is Howard but in a way create my own, leave my footprint when it comes to basketball,” Doyle said. “I feel like I had a lot to do with [Howard’s resurgence], not just as a player on the court, but off the court when we do our preseason conditioning, pushing my teammates and having them to push me, so I feel like they’re just as much responsible for the success we’ve had as I am.”
Senior guards Kara Smith and Cheyenne Curley-Payne are among other teammates whose play influenced MEAC coaches to vote Howard (7-6, 2-0) as the preseason favorite in the conference. Smith is averaging 10.2 points, second on the team behind Doyle, and 3.4 rebounds, and Curley-Payne averages 8.3 points and 4.5 rebounds.
The Bison’s stability in the back court is a nod to Reid Geckeler’s pedigree as a starting point guard for Georgetown, where she played in the early 1990s. In 1993, Geckeler was part of the first team in Georgetown history to reach the NCAA tournament’s round of 16. That year also marked the last time the Hoyas beat Connecticut, which since has won 28 consecutive games in the series.
The Bison, meantime, are seeking to end a seven-game losing streak to Hampton (11-5, 2-0), which has won five regular season and six MEAC tournament titles, including the last three in a row, since joining in the conference in 1995-96.
“We have to have confidence,” Doyle said. “I think that’s what Hampton has over us right now because they’ve beaten us so many times and in the championship for the past couple years. They have the mental edge over us, but as far as talent and skill set, we’re the better team.”