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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

By Bethany Bradsher

Lady Pirates rise above expectations

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

Sharon Baldwin-Tener was far from negative when she talked about her team during the preseason. She knew the East Carolina Lady Pirates had considerable talent, and she believed she had players who could score from any part of the floor.

Now, sitting at 14-2 and 3-0 in Conference USA, Baldwin-Tener is happy to report that she underestimated this group.

“I think we probably have a deeper team than I thought originally,” said Baldwin-Tener, in her eighth year at the helm. “We have a different leading scorer almost every game. You can’t sit one player down and shut our team down.”

The names that fans hear most often are experienced players and leading scorers Allison Spivey, Ashley Clarke and Crystal Wilson, all averaging more than 10 points per game. But what makes ECU’s offense so tricky to foil is the effectiveness of its bench and the recent hot hands of young outside shooters like Ariana Jackson and Kelly Smith.

In Sunday’s 73-62 victory over Central Florida, the momentum pivoted behind the three-point arc in the second quarter after UCF cut the Pirates’ lead to five. ECU responded with a 16-7 run that essentially sealed the win. Jackson, Smith and Spivey all contributed three-pointers during that rally.

Smith, who is second on the team with 28 three-pointers, is a junior transfer from West Virginia playing her first season as a Pirate. She practiced with the team last season and served on the scout team while waiting for NCAA regulations to put her back in the game.

Through those months of watching her during practice, Baldwin-Tener knew that Smith was poised to become an instant contributor.

“She’s a really good shooter, but she can do much more than that,” Baldwin-Tener said. “She’s a big guard that can get her hands on the ball and be active.”

Jackson, a freshman from West Palm Beach, FL, learned so much from Baldwin-Tener and her staff in her first months at ECU that it took her awhile to apply all of the new skills to her game. Her coach let her ease into the more intense Division I competition, gradually increasing her playing time throughout the non-conference slate.

With every game, Jackson gets more chances to prove that she has the confidence and ability to assert her presence even more.

An intense player who specializes in hustle plays, Jackson has pulled down several key rebounds for the Pirates, including seven boards against UCF to make her the team’s top rebounder that afternoon.

“She’s getting more comfortable as the season goes on, and I think it helps us that we have some leadership and some post players that returned from last year,” Baldwin-Tener said. “She goes out there and she plays hard, and she makes things happen because of how hard she plays.”

The team is shooting nearly 36 percent from the three-point line and 47 percent from the floor. But Baldwin-Tener points out that the Pirate defense, too, has been exceeding expectations. From starter to role player, the Lady Pirates are characterized by their tenacity when their opponents have the ball.

“They’re really starting to buy into the fact that defense is winning the game,” she said.

Jackson has her own testimonial of a defensive awakening, and it goes hand in hand with her quick ascent into the college game. In high school, defense was simple and underemphasized, but Baldwin-Tener took apart her old defensive habits and rebuilt that part of her game, piece by piece. Now she enjoys it, especially when ECU’s aggressiveness opens the door for more looks when they get the ball.

“It’s not the most fun thing to do in practice, but it’s paid off for everybody,” Jackson said of the defensive sharpening. “We’ve learned techniques, and how to guard, and it helps us to be better on offense.”

The next challenge for the Lady Pirates is a pair of Texas road trips. They travel to the Lone Star State this weekend to face Houston and Rice. Baldwin-Tener believes that Houston may be the toughest team the Lady Pirates will have faced so far.

The following weekend brings a trip to Dallas to play against Southern Methodist.

The next home game is on Jan. 28 against UAB. The Lady Pirates have been drawing more fans to Minges for every outing.

E-mail Bethany Bradsher

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01/13/2010 03:15 AM

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