Kim McNeill isn’t going to sugarcoat it with her players and pretend that starting off the season 3-12 is anything other than disheartening. She feels the pain of the East Carolina women’s basketball team’s sluggish play so far as acutely as anyone.
But despite the fact that the Pirates have only been able to celebrate victory thrice so far, McNeill is certain about two things. She believes they Pirates can improve their fortunes if they fortify the mental side of their game, and she knows that the difficulties of this season will actually help them when they hit rough patches in their adult lives.
“Obviously, the season hasn’t gone the way we want it to go,” said McNeill, who is in her first season leading the team. “We’ve hit a lot of adversity, but I’ve always looked at it as, you learn from every situation, and you take good from every situation. We’re going through this for a reason, it’s just going to make us a better team next year, it’s just going to make us better and tougher people in life, because life’s not easy.”
The Pirates stayed within striking distance but ultimately fell to Southern Methodist 55-47 Wednesday night in Minges in what was only their second home contest in more than six weeks. With most of the conference slate still ahead, they’re looking to right the ship and build something that can carry them into future success despite multiple injuries to key upperclassmen and an unstable recent recruiting history due to the coaching upheaval of last season.
It’s a stretch of ground that McNeill, who compiled a 59-38 record during her three seasons at the helm of Hartford, has never traveled before.
She has no intention of taking her foot off the gas in terms of her expectations for her players; she met with each one of them on Monday to outline what they will need to do to get the team on a winning track. But many of the contributors are freshmen getting more playing time than they anticipated, and while those minutes will shape them into solid players, their learning curve is steep in a highly competitive conference.
The things McNeill and her staff can control are an emphasizing fundamentals and mental toughness, creating solid game plans against each opponent, and exhorting the team’s skeleton crew of healthy veterans to understand the tremendous value they have to the team.
One Pirate who has received more than her share of that encouragement from her coach is junior guard and leading scorer Lashonda Monk, who has the spark and talent to effect change every time she takes the floor.
“I didn’t sugarcoat it,” McNeill said of Monk, who did her part Wednesday night with 23 points and 8 rebounds. “I said, ‘Here’s what we need for you to be better. She has to get her teammates to come with her.”
The Pirates need to focus particularly on defense; ECU is at the bottom of the conference in defensive rebounds, field goal percentage of opponents and blocked shots, among other categories. They have the capability to be decisively aggressive and shut down offensive flurries like the one that helped Central Florida build a 52-15 halftime lead in Sunday’s conference-opening defeat, but McNeill said that such a pivot starts above the shoulders.
“Right now, really, our focus is our mentality,” she said. “In order to be a pressing, defensive-minded team, you have to have a certain mentality. You’ve got to approach it a certain way. Because it truly is high-risk, high-reward. And if you come out lackadaisical, you come out not believing, you come out not with the right approach to it, you can get beat by it, you can really be made to look silly.”
The players know that the lessons forged through adversity will result in more wins, and McNeill looks forward to brighter days as her Pirates capitalize on the strength they’ve built through trials.
She looks forward to raucous Minges Coliseum crowds, and she has a message for any member of the Pirate Nation who might be tempted to let the team slip off their radar:
“I just hope they stick with us,” she said, “and understand this team has been through a lot.”