Throughout the Elon University women’s basketball season, head coach Charlotte Smith tried to emphasize the importance of rebounding to her team.
Her methodology to encourage the team to rebound was simple: If you don’t win the rebounding battle, be ready to run.
“They know that we’re expecting it, and they know that if they don’t win, there’s consequences in place now,” Smith said. “I think those consequences of having to get up early in the morning and run for not boxing out has sharpened our mentality a little bit more.”
The runs take place at 6 a.m. Tuesday mornings after Elon has a game in which it struggles on the boards.
“Not fun, ever. It’s the worst,” said sophomore guard Shay Burnett. “We know if we don’t rebound, it’s going to happen.”
Just mentioning the topic led junior forward Jenifer Rhodes to drip sarcasm into each word she spoke.
“Yes, those are really great,” Rhodes said. “I just enjoy so much setting my alarm for 5:20 a.m., and waking up, blasting music in my car to actually peel my eyelids back to be ready and alert for those 6 a.m. runs. They’re really awesome.”
But the runs have worked for the Phoenix, as the team’s rebounding has improved to second in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA). Avoiding the runs — and the extra work at practice that comes with it — has been a major motivating factor to the team as it heads to the CAA Tournament.
“Nobody wants to set their alarm for that time,” Rhodes said. “And also, at the practices following the 6 a.m. runs, all that we focus on is boxing out, if that’s something we didn’t take care of in the game.”
Elon has been on a good run of rebounding recently, averaging 45.6 rebounds per game in its last five games. It won the rebounding battle by double-digits in four of those games, with the lone exception being a 41-41 tie at James Madison University Feb. 28, the league leader in rebounding.
“We’ve done a good job on the boards, and that’s kept us in a lot of games,” Smith said. “We tied with James Madison on the boards, and in order to be in the game like that, with that caliber of a team, you have to rebound the ball really well. Last time [March 2 at the College of William & Mary], we were pretty dominant on the boards and did a good job of boxing out.”
The tie on the boards against James Madison was a stark contrast to the game played Jan. 10 at Alumni Gym, where the Dukes grabbed 57 rebounds — 30 of them on the offensive glass — compared to just 34 for Elon.
The struggles in that game still befuddle Smith.
“It wasn’t a matter of making an effort to go to the boards. It was just a matter of boxing them out to secure rebounds,” she said. “We had good inside positioning, because you’re on defense, but we just refused to put a body on people. You would think, after seeing them get rebounds over and over and over again, that something would click. It just never clicked that day. I just can’t even wrap my head around it.”
Yet Elon still nearly won that game, losing 81-76 in overtime after a late foul gave the Dukes three free throws to tie the game in regulation. That close loss and the 73-72 loss Feb. 28 in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on James Madison’s Senior Day show the heightened level of confidence Elon has this season compared to last, its first in the CAA.
“When you sit here and watch hours and hours of game film, and you look at what you have and what stacks up against your opponents, I have a lot of confidence in the fact that we can beat anybody in the league,” Smith said. “The hardest thing was trying to convince them. I think they were intimidated by JMU. Especially when we played at their place [in 2015]. It was an intimidating environment, something different that they’ve never seen.
“This year, totally different. It took having played them so well in the tournament to elevate them to the next level. They went into this season knowing that we can compete with them. Now, it’s just a matter of getting the job done. We’ve been there both times, and both times, in late game situations, we’ve been up and we’ve shot ourselves in the foot.”
That tournament game — a 63-60 loss in the semifinals March 14, 2015 — has been a focal point for Elon ever since the game ended a year ago, especially after seeing James Madison win the tournament. And the intimidation factor dissipated in the tournament.
“When we were going into the CAA Tournament last year, everyone was saying, ‘JMU is one of the top mid-major schools out there,’” Rhodes said. “So yeah, it intimidated us a bit. But we weren’t even thinking about what rank JMU was. We were just thinking, ‘We’re going to win this game.’ I think that’s why that game was so close.”
Now, heading into this season’s tournament, Rhodes has heard James Madison head coach Kenny Brooks mention the similarities between the teams as the reason why Elon has played the Dukes so evenly. And, should the teams meet up in the semifinals, Smith is anxious to finally get to a conference title game.
“The biggest thing that sticks out in my mind is that we’ve been to the semifinals three years in a row, and I’m ready to advance to that next level,” Smith said. “In order to advance to that next level, you have to be a different you. I’m going to do my part to have the team prepared and ready. They have to do their part, because I can’t get out there and do it on the floor for them.”
But Rhodes knows that Elon isn’t going to be gifted the quarterfinal game, where the Phoenix faces the University of Delaware at 2:30 p.m. Thursday. In fact, Rhodes is aware of the opposite momentum Elon has going into the tournament.
“One thing that’s different is that we lost to [the University of North Carolina at Wilmington] twice, and our first game in the tournament was against UNCW, and we were really excited and ready to beat them,” Rhodes said. “This year, we beat Delaware twice, and now, we’re going in and have to play them for a third time. In basketball, no matter who you are, it’s hard to beat a team three times. I know we’re going to have to come out with the fire under our belt and come out crazy, because I know they’re not going to want to lose another game, especially in the CAA Tournament, to us one more time.
“The target is now on our back a little bit more.”