It was difficult last preseason for East Carolina first-year women’s basketball coach Kim McNeill to envision the Pirates rolling to a 20-plus win season, but also to not reach double digits in victories.
What ended March 6 as a 9-21 Pirate campaign, marred by a 12-game losing streak but also featuring a late-season surge for six total American Athletic Conference wins, gave McNeill some moments of reflection, especially now during the sports hiatus because of COVID-19.
“At one point in the season, we only had seven players (healthy), and it was pretty much eight the whole year, so it made things pretty tough,” McNeill said. “But I always say that in every situation, you have to try to find a positive and find some things you can learn from and get better from. With this team, the biggest thing was just trying to teach them how to win and how to win at an elite level. ... We’ve had some good (postseason) conversations about what it looks like to win games and what does it take. It’s not about just showing up for games, but it’s the process.”
Injuries included veteran guard Justice Gee missing the entire year and quality scorer Raven Johnson being limited to four games.
McNeill said injuries were part of a roller-coaster season for everyone that featured freshmen experiencing more playing time than originally expected.
Taniyah Thompson led all AAC freshmen in points per game, field goal percentage and minutes played. Pirate point guard Lashonda Monk earned the league’s defensive player of the year award thanks to her 125 steals, the most in ECU and American single-season history.
ECU went 4-2 to end the regular season before falling to Temple in the opening round of the AAC tournament.
“We talked a lot about how we are going to approach every day, and I thought as the season went on and in February we started to figure that out a little bit, but obviously time ran out on us,” McNeill said. “I was very excited about going into this offseason and working on some things and this summer, but who knows what things are going to look like now?”
The Pirates should return most, if not all, of their key players. Monk and Dominique Claytor will be seniors next year.
Senior guard Sierra DaCosta will be eligible after transferring from Hartford.
This was McNeill’s first losing season in her fourth as a head coach. She went 17-14 in 2016-17 at Hartford, followed by records of 19-13 and 23-11 before leaving the Hawks for the Pirates in March of 2019.
After a 3-10 nonconference record, the Pirates’ 6-10 league mark was a major bright spot for the coach.
“Most of the league was still kind of wide open and it shows that when we win nine (overall) games, but we get six wins in the league and finish ninth,” she said. “If we got two or three more, then we finish in fifth or sixth place.”
Like all other teams trying to mentally power through an unexpected and challenging offseason, the Pirates have shifted to alternative workouts.
“With places shut down, now it’s really dependent on these young ladies to get a ball and go in the backyard on the concrete and work on your ball-handling,” McNeill said. “We sent them home some things they can do with body-weight stuff. ... A big thing I think in basketball anyway is your core and strengthening up that core, so they can do core work and a lot of body-weight (workouts). Just getting out and going for a run or go for a bike ride can help, because running on concrete all the time is not good.”