Chalk it up to first game jitters or early season rustiness. Whatever the reason, the Elon University women’s basketball team was unable to pull away and was pushed to the brink by Division II Anderson University before creating separation late and escaping with a 77-72 win in its season opener Nov. 14 at Alumni Gym, a game much closer than the matchup would have suggested on paper.
Elon head coach Charlotte Smith, unhappy with her team’s effort and intensity, believed her team took Anderson lightly, perhaps looking ahead to what most assumed would be a stiffer challenge against the Naval Academy on Sunday afternoon.
“There were times when we were really flat and we lacked the intensity we needed to play the way that I feel Elon women’s basketball plays,” Smith said. “But there were some sparks of really good things that we did, we just need to find a way to connect the dots to where we can string it together and do those things for 40 minutes.”
She hopes the game will serve as a reminder that coming out flat and playing lethargically against anyone, especially as the season progresses and the opponents are more talented, is a sure-fire way to be upset or lose winnable games.
“I surely hope it is (a wake-up call),” Smith said. “That’s one of the things we talked about, realizing our nonconference schedule and who we play and that we’re going to have to step it up.”
Anderson, which returned all five starters from last year and beat Clemson University in 2012 with many of the same players on the roster, was not intimidated by Elon’s superior size and athleticism.
After going back and forth for much of the first half, the Phoenix ripped off an 11-2 run, punctuated by 3-pointers from freshman guard Shay Burnett and senior guard Zora Stephenson to stretch the home team’s lead to 11.
But Anderson battled and scrapped, refusing to allow the Phoenix to grab a stranglehold on the game. The Trojans cut the Elon’s lead to 34-29 with a little over three minutes to go in the half, but the Phoenix didn’t falter. Instead, it answered with a 10-3 run to lead 42-32 at the break.
But the Trojans wouldn’t go away. They clawed their way back into the game and took their first lead, 56-54, with 12 minutes remaining on a layup by junior forward Jennifer Monroe.
The Phoenix, though, remained composed, immediately regaining control of the game with a 10-0 run to take a 64-56 lead with 7:33 left.
That run, Smith said, was vital in turning the momentum back in the Elon’s favor and seizing control of the game. The key to that run, Smith said, was the Elon’s dedication on the defensive end.
“We talked about locking things down defensively and some of the sets they were running and concentrating on changing some of the things we were doing defensively,” Smith said. “I thought we did a better job of containing penetration and had better rotations defensively.”
From there, the Phoenix was able to answer each Trojan mini-run with a clutch basket or key rebound of its own, thus keeping the pesky visitors at arms-length. The Phoenix was balanced offensively, with nine different players scoring at least one bucket, and four players in double figures, led by Stephenson’s 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting, including a blistering 5-of-10 from behind the arc.
Freshman center Malaya Johnson, battling butterflies in her first collegiate game, was able to gain confidence and overcome her timidity to finish with 13 points, all in the paint, on 6-of-9 shooting.
“I feel like when my teammates give me the ball in the paint they’re relying on me to do something with it,” Johnson said. “Either find the open man or go to work and finish. When I get the ball, that’s my goal: to finish.”
Senior wing Sam Coffer scored 12 points and went 2-of-4 from behind the arc, while sophomore guard Essence Baucom added 10.
The Trojans were paced by junior forward Jennifer Monroe’s 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting, and senior guard Lesley Woods’ shooting hand. Woods drained four 3-pointers and finished with 16 points.
The game served as a homecoming for Anderson coach Jimmy Garrity, an Elon alumnus.
The Phoenix will have to put its opener behind it fast, as it hosts the Naval Academy on Sunday, Nov. 16, at Alumni Gym.