Luck has not been on the side of the Elon University women’s basketball team in recent weeks.
Injuries, as well as other personal issues, have kept Phoenix players and coaches out of games. This recent stroke of bad luck has given the team no shortage of adversities to overcome.
Injuries have been the most damaging to the Phoenix, forcing key players to miss a number of games. Junior guard Zora Stephenson, junior forward Shannen Cochraham and freshman forward Jenifer Rhodes are just a few of the players that have been forced out of the lineup.
Elon won games against Appalachian State University and Western Carolina University in the middle of January without Stephenson and Cochraham but struggled when the pair returned, losing two road games by a total of four points.
The first loss came on the road against Furman University. A three-pointer by Furman’s Sarah Durdaller with nine seconds remaining sealed a 66-65 Paladins win, in which Stephenson and Cochraham scored a combined six points. Two days later, Elon suffered another heartbreaking loss, this time at the hands of Wofford College. Down three points on the final play of the game, Stephenson shot a three-pointer that fell short, giving the Terriers a 68-65 win.
Heading into Elon’s Feb. 1 matchup against the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the team found itself without its head coach, Charlotte Smith, who missed the game because of two recent deaths in her family. Assistant coach Cristy McKinney, acting as the team’s head coach for the game, said her message to the team remained positive following the team’s losses to Furman and Wofford.
“[Our message was] that we’re better than we played last weekend,” McKinney said. “That we need to be aggressive. We’re a better team when we are aggressive.”
Aggressiveness is what McKinney wanted out of her players, and that’s exactly what she got. All that the Phoenix needed to cure its ailments was the home matchup against UNCG, who came into the game at the bottom of the Southern Conference with an record of 5-15.
Elon dominated play from the get-go, leading UNCG 30-15 midway through the first half after a three-pointer from freshman guard Lauren Brown. The Phoenix led 40-24 at half, finishing the frame shooting 57 percent from the field.
The second half was the Zora Stephenson show. She caught fire, scoring 11 straight points in a span of just over four minutes. Entering the game, she led the SoCon in three-point field goals per game (2.35). Against the Spartans, Stephenson knocked down four of her eight attempts from behind the arc. Behind her three-point shooting and the team’s up-tempo offense and suffocating defense, the Phoenix cruised to an 80-57 win.
Elon’s 80 points against UNCG was the team’s highest scoring output of conference play. Brown and senior guard Kelsey Harris, who each had seven assists in the game, led a Phoenix attack that has remained unselfish despite injury.
“I definitely feel like we play for each other,” Brown said. “If you’re not open, somebody else is going to be. It’s always a good feeling when you find your teammate open and make them a nice pass. Teamwork makes the dream work.”
Eight games remain on Elon’s regular season schedule. At this point in the season, each game is important. The team is healthy and the offense is starting to click as they enter the homestretch. In the eyes of Stephenson, the ability of this team has always been there. It has just been about putting it all together.
“I see signs every day in practice of how good this team can be, and that’s why it’s so discouraging when we don’t play up to our potential,” Stephenson said. “We have so much talent, and it’s about putting it together. When it’s put all together, it’s scary. It’s pretty awesome basketball out there.”
Awesome basketball is exactly what the Phoenix played against UNCG. Down the stretch, the competition will be better, and the stakes will be higher. Elon will face all four of the teams currently ahead of them in the SoCon: University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Davidson College, Furman and Georgia Southern University.
One trait that this team does not lack heading into these games is confidence.
“This team can be great,” Stephenson said after her 18-point performance against UNCG.
Elon has shown brief signs of potential this season, but it will need to exceed those as the year continues. Those signs were present against UNCG, suggesting that luck may be turning on Elon’s side at the right time.