American University women's basketball thriving after midseason turnaround

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010

American women's basketball coach Matt Corkery says it was the win against Lehigh on Jan. 9 that turned what was becoming a mediocre season into one of the more successful ones in program history.

Junior forward Liz Leer disagrees. She believes the tipping point came a week earlier when the Eagles lost at Columbia.

Whenever the decisive moment occurred, somewhere along the way everything clicked for American, which heads into the Patriot League tournament as the No. 2 seed. The Eagles (20-8, 13-1) play seventh-seeded Lafayette (6-22, 4-10) in Saturday's quarterfinals at Hart Center in Worcester, Mass.

American hadn't been playing well heading into its Patriot League opener against defending champion Lehigh back in January. The Eagles were 7-7 and had lost two of their previous three.

To make matters worse, they were short-handed. Between injuries -- not the least of which, senior starting point guard Nicole Ryan had gone down with a torn Achilles' in early December -- and the funeral for Ashley Yencho's high school coach, AU had only seven players available for that game. Turns out, the Eagles only needed seven to beat the Mountain Hawks, 69-65, in overtime.

"We had seven players and we won," said Corkery, who was named the Patriot League coach of the year. "If we can do that and beat the team to beat, so to speak, I think we gained a lot of confidence from that."

While that win boosted the team's spirits, Leer said the 66-56 loss at Columbia provided the impetus for changing the direction of the season.

"Matt had a very serious conversation with us in the locker room afterward," said Leer, a first-team all-league pick. "He wasn't happy with our performance."

According to Leer, Corkery told the players they weren't taking the games seriously and they weren't coming into practice with the right intensity. He also called out certain players and told them specifically what they needed to change.

"I thought that was the best way to go about it," Leer said. "It was blunt, it was clear and it was exactly what we needed to fix in order for us to have the season like we have had this past conference."

After knocking off Lehigh, AU won 12 of its next 13 games, its only loss coming at Lehigh on Feb. 6. The Eagles' 13 conference wins are the best in school history. They reached 20 wins for just the fourth time in their history, and the first time since the 1997-98 season.

"One of the things that has gotten the team to where it is today was handling adversity," said junior forward Michelle Kirk, the first player in program history to earn conference player of the year honors. "We really learned how to handle those setbacks and just push through, and it's made our team stronger and it's made everybody get along a lot better. It's improved our chemistry and we all have faith in each other on the court."

Kirk and Leer became the first AU tandem to earn first-team all-conference honors in the same season since 1988, when Kelly Lane and Beth Shearer were selected to the all-Colonial Athletic Association first team. But Kirk, who leads the league in scoring at 18.1 points per game, and Leer, who is the program's career leader in blocked shots (163), both say the Eagles wouldn't be where they are today without the contributions of their teammates.

"Everyone understands their role," Leer said. "No one tries to do too much, but no one's doing too little either."

This is the second year in a row that AU enters the tournament as the No. 2 seed. Last year, after beating Lafayette in the regular season finale, the Eagles were upset by the Leopards, 58-56, in the quarterfinal round. The irony of playing Lafayette again this year in the quarterfinals is not lost on the players.

"We're ready for them," Kirk said. "I don't want to relive it, but I mean it's kind of good right now because we all know we have to go in and be ready and not take anybody for granted. I think our team is ready."

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